There’s a new, better way to hydrate your hair—and it's not happening in the shower.

By Molly Longman and Lauren Mazzo
Updated July 06, 2020
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You don't wash moisturizer off your face a minute after applying it, so why do you rinse out hair conditioner?

“You shouldn’t,” says Mairi Scott-Dickins, a global product development manager at Unilever. “That sends most of the hydrating ingredients down the drain.”

The answer? Leave-in conditioner. It'll help you maintain softer strands, reduce tangles, and protect hair from damage when you apply it to damp hair post-shower. Ready to give leave-in a shot? Here's what you need to know. (Want a quick rec? Check out Hailey Beiber's $9 leave-in conditioner pick.)

Why You Need a Leave-In Conditioner

Just like traditional conditioner, these no-rinse versions rely on silicones, ingredients that coat the hair to keep it silky, protected, and tangle-free. But because you apply them on halfway-dry hair and don’t wash them off, all the formula stays on your hair, says Scott-Dickins. They’re also lightweight, so the conditioner doesn’t build up, which can make strands dull and flat. (Related: The Best Clarifying Shampoo to Remove Buildup from Your Hair and Scalp)

Most people apply leave-in in addition to a normal shampoo-and-condition routine in the shower; however, one of the latest conditioning methods is to use only shampoo in the shower, towel-dry hair but leave it damp, then apply a conditioner that’s designed to stay. This saves conditioner, but is also less likely to damage your strands.

“Hair is at its most fragile when it’s wet,” says Britta Cox, the founder of Aquis hair care. “As strands soak up water, they swell and stretch, making them more prone to breakage and dullness.” By skipping conditioner in the shower, you limit your exposure (and consume less water). (P.S. You can save plastic by switching to a shampoo bar, too.)

Picking the right leave-in conditioner depends on your hair texture. If you have fine or thin hair, look for a foam or a spray. If you have dry, thick, or wavy hair, it likely prefers an oil, milk, or cream. If you have curly hair, you can go for a balm or a butter, but also use a hair mask in the shower once a week, says celebrity colorist Angela Cosmai.

Best Overall: It's a 10 Leave-In Conditioner

Amazon

With over 2,700 5-star reviews on Amazon and another 2,600 on Ulta’s website, this leave-in conditioner earns its name as a “miracle” treatment. The product boasts 10 different benefits, including repairing damaged hair, adding shine, controlling frizz, protecting hair color, detangling, preventing split ends, stopping hair breakage, creating silkiness, enhancing natural body, and acting as a heat protectant.

Reviewers love it for its ability to detangle even the knottiest hair and smooth frizzy locks, while others say that it helps restore their colored hair and highlights. One reviewer wrote that “since using this product my hair has grown so much and my split ends disappeared!” 

Best Conditioner Replacement: Good Stuff Intensive Nourishment Cream No-Rinse Conditioner

Ulta

With this conditioner, you skip the in-shower rinse-off conditioner completely. Simply shampoo, hop out of the shower, apply this to the lengths (not roots) of your towel-dried hair, and style as usual. It’s packed with coconut oil (to smooth the cuticles and nourish dry hair), glycerin (to hydrate), and micro-silicones (which coat your hair to protect it from damage and add shine). 

One Ulta customer is obsessed: “My hair is extremely dry with tons of split ends and I've never been able to find anything that could give it as much hydration as it needs. I've searched for years and have even tried leaving regular conditioner on my hair after showering, but the formulas weren't made for that and it irritated my scalp and weighed my hair down. But this no-rinse formula is PERFECT. It completely absorbed into my hair so it doesn't feel greasy at all. My hair feels soft and healthy.”

Best for Curly Hair: Oribe Styling Butter Curl Enhancing Crème

Dermstore

This luscious cream doubles as a curl styling product and a leave-in conditioner for people with curly and coily hair. It uses nourishing olive and avocado oils to moisturize, plus amino acids and cupuaçu butter to soften and define curls, plus combat frizz. 

Curly-haired customers sing its praises in the reviews—and promise that, since a little goes a long way, it makes the price easier to swallow: “This is a very interesting product. It comes out thick and a little oily and feels a little like styling wax. It was a little off-putting, but it applies to hair very well and I need to use just a tiny amount to get good results. This goes a long way toward [its] approximate $45 price that is listed right now...To tell the truth, purely for hold and styling it is one of the best I've tried with the least work...” (Related: How to Style Wavy and Curly Hair)

One reviewer even uses it to smooth her hair before blowing dry: “I am able too straighten my semi curly hair with a brush and skip the hot iron!!”

Best Lightweight Leave-In: Ouai Leave-In Conditioner

Amazon

Australian brand Ouai's leave-in conditioner promises to detangle, smooth, and hydrate hair using an amino acid blend, tamarind seed extract, and vitamin E. Plus, in addition to conditioning strands, it also protects against heat and UV damage. The brand recommends using it as a first step post-wash in any hair routine. Bonus: It smells incredible, with scents of bergamot, blackberry, lily, and more.

Reviewers swear by it, too: "OUAI is like a nectar from the Gods for hair!" writes one reviewer. "Once dry, my thick hair is so soft and silky. I get compliments all the time. Additionally, I am letting my natural grey grow out and anybody on THAT journey knows how wiry and unruly grey can be...OUAI even helps those strands stay smooth and blend with the rest of my hair."

Best for Waves and Loose Curls: Shea Moisture Manuka Honey and Yogurt Multi-Action Leave-In

Ulta

This rich leave-in conditioner works for most wavy and medium-curly hair types, but you'll want to skip it if you have tight curls or straight hair. Spray it over clean, damp hair, and leave it on to protect hair from heat and other styling damage—according to the brand, it'll protect hair from high heat up to 450 degrees while reducing breakage up to 87 percent. It's packed with certified organic shea butter, Manuka honey, yogurt, baobab seed oil, and mafura seed oil, which work together to fortify hair with protective proteins and seal them into strands. Not to mention, it smells super sweet and delicious, like the ingredients inside.

Reviewers are obsessed. One wrote that "it made my hair so soft, manageable, bouncy and made my waves/curls well-defined!!! A little goes a long way, so start out with a smaller amount; you can always add more. I even use it on my dry hair as a refresher." Another said it majorly helped her split ends: "I use this product when I have washed my hair. I've done box dyes, profession[al] hair dye, I straighten my hair maybe 2-3 times a month. And when I tell you I spray this, this closes my split ends."

Best for Tight Curls or Textured Hair: Cantu Leave-In Conditioner

Amazon

This well-loved leave-in conditioner cream is an “Amazon’s Choice” product, as well as one of the most affordable leave-in products on the market. It’s a favorite among people with kinky, coily, and natural hair—and the nearly 4.5-star rating on Amazon backs that up. 

“I have very curly mixed ethnic hair. I love this product. It hydrates my hair well and makes is soft. I use this after the shower and before I [style] my hair. It is great if you have curly or dry hair,” wrote one reviewer.

Cantu’s leave-in uses shea butter to repair split ends, deeply moisturize, reduce frizz, and heal damaged hair—and though it’s mainly designed for textured hair, anyone with damaged or processed hair will likely benefit from it as well. 

“I'm a white male who uses this product to repair the damage done to my hair by pool water,” writes another reviewer. “I swim laps 1-3 hours a day, 5-6 days a week and I don't typically wear a swim cap. The chlorine does a number on my hair and I've struggled to find a product that keeps my hair looking good and feeling soft. I tried this product out recently and it was amazing. My hair is soft so soft and shiny like it used to be before I started swimming regularly. I love it.” (These other products will help protect hair through chlorine, sun, salt, and wind this summer.) 

Best Clean-Beauty Conditioner: Adwoa Beauty Baomint Leave-In Conditioning Styler

Sephora

This rich and creamy daily leave-in conditioner is designed to prep, rehydrate, and soften kinky, curly, and wavy hair textures of any thickness. It includes lavender oil (which has antimicrobial properties), rosemary leaf oil (to improve circulation in the scalp, and promote hair growth), and nettle extract (to help boost shine), as well as Adwoa’s special baomint blend—a mix of healing and hydrating baobab oil, plus peppermint, spearmint, and wintergreen oil, which have anti-fungal properties and can stimulate hair growth—which is in all the products in their collection.

As a clean beauty option, it’s also free of ingredients like sulfates, parabens, formaldehyde, phthalates, and mineral oil, contains less than one percent of synthetic fragrances, and is also cruelty-free. Reviewers give it a 4.8-star rating on Sephora, and say that this stuff is incredible.

“I searched high and low for a leave-in that leaves my hair moisturized for days,” writes one reviewer with kinky curly hair. “This is it! It leaves my hair soft and smelling good. It has a sweet tropical minty smell that is not too strong. Smooth consistency that works well with water. It seems concentrated… I need it in a liter size because my family of 4 all use it.”

Shape Magazine, July/August 2019 issue

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