As anyone with curly hair knows, the right conditioner is crucial to maintaining healthy, shiny curls. Curly hair is prone to dullness, breakage, and, most commonly, dryness regardless of how you treat it. "The more curly and coiled the strand, the more moisture the hair will need," explains Tonya Lane, a cosmetic chemist and founder of CurlyChemistry.
Curly hair is different from straight hair starting at the scalp, where oil glands produce sebum, a natural oil that acts as a protective layer for hair and helps it retain moisture. Fun fact: "The follicles on the scalp of those who have curly hair have an oval shape that determines the curl pattern, whereas those with straight hair will have a circular shape follicle," explains Lane. Sebum has a harder time traveling down a curly shaft of hair because of its spiral or kink shape and has further to travel; this means the curlier the hair, the more difficult it has naturally moisturizing itself. That's why it's so important for curlies to use ultra-moisturizing products. But not every conditioner will do the trick.
There are specific ingredients in products, including conditioner, that work best for curly hair. Lane breaks them down into three categories:
While these ingredients are go-tos for curling haired peeps, Lane emphasizes that curly hair is unique and, structurally, very demanding. If you have high-porosity curly hair (here's more on hair porosity and how to find yours), you're going to want to stay away from humectants such as glycerin and butylene glycol within the first two to three ingredients on a conditioner label, as these can lift the hair cuticle and cause frizziness, says Lane. Low porosity hair means your hair cuticle is fairly smooth. On the bright side, this means less frizz in general, but it does take more time for moisture to penetrate your hair so leave your conditioner in for a few extra minutes or — for even more moisturizing — pop on a shower cap and direct low heat from a blowdryer onto your hair for a few minutes before you rinse. Then, to avoid piling on product without results, be sure to rinse out your conditioner thoroughly with a focus on the scalp where product buildup is most likely to occur. Curly-haired folks with all hair porosity types should avoid drying alcohols such as isopropyl alcohol. (Related: I Tried the Curly Girl Method On My Fine, Wavy Hair)
Now that we've covered the basics of what to look for and avoid in products, check out some of the best conditioners for curly hair.
Having a great leave-in conditioner is vital to a curly hair-care routine because these strands need major moisture. Pattern Beauty — created by goddess and haver-of-excellent-hair, Tracee Ellis Ross — is a brand that packs its natural and curly hair products with all of the good stuff while leaving out the bad, so you won't find any parabens, cyclic silicones, phthalates, or formaldehyde. (Parabens, phthalates, and formaldehyde are chemicals that research shows can be harmful and toxic, while silicones mimic the same effect as cationic conditioners without nourishing the hair. Additionally, they're not water-soluble which means they can build up quickly and are hard to get rid of without a super cleansing shampoo.) Instead, this leave-in conditioner for curly hair is brimming with emollients such as avocado and jojoba oil and includes humectants such as honey and butylene glycol, so that moisture is added and locked into your curls, leaving them super soft and super defined. As a bonus, it smells fantastic and features notes of neroli, rose, and patchouli. (Check out these other leave-in conditioners for even more options — plus, learn why you should be using them.)
Bread, every curly's favorite summer launch, is kind of a game-changer as a brand. It embraces frizz (let's face it, you can't entirely escape it) and celebrates natural texture, keeping the traditional language of "taming unruly curls and coils" out of its marketing. Its creamy deep conditioner highlights starflower oil as one of its two key ingredients, which is a big deal because starflower oil contains gamma-linoleic acid, an ingredient that helps strengthen breakage-prone curls. It's also packed with butters and oils which means it gives slip and seals in moisture.
For those of us who want to douse our curls in hydrating butters but don't have the funds to drop stacks at Sephora every two weeks, there's Miss Jessie's Super Sweetback Treatment. Trust, this stuff performs just as well as budget-breakers thanks in large part to the combination of shea butter and soy protein. Not only does it seal in moisture, it strengthens breakage-prone curls — that's where the soy protein comes in — and stimulates growth with centella extract, a plant extract full of amino acids, fatty acids, and beta carotene. (BTW, Zendaya is a huge fan of another Miss Jessie's product that you need to try.)
When my 3b/3c curls were bleached white, heat styled daily, and breaking off in my hands, this was the only conditioner that restored the softness of my damaged curls. This one is a double whammy: It hydrates your hair and scalp with glycerin, then smooths follicles with roucou oil (made from the beta carotene-rich seed inside the tropical roucou fruit), and apricot butter, two heavy-hitting emollients that deliver shine and heat protection without weighing down your curl pattern.
If you're a co-washing curly hair, you're probably familiar with the hunt for a conditioner that breaks down build-up while also being gentle enough for daily use. Ouidad's Cleansing Conditioner meets those needs and then some. Gentle cleansing happens courtesy of rosemary and sage essential oils while coconut, avocado, and grapeseed oils provide slip and seals in moisture. Plus, it smells insanely good. (See what happened when one editor tried Ouidad's new line specifically for coaxing waves into curls.)
Curl definition is a major goal, and getting there starts in the shower (or bath). Like many of the conditioners on this list, this beauty editor-favorite features aloe leaf extract to provide deep moisture, behentrimonium chloride for smoothness, and rice protein for strength. It's also packed with oils — not just emollient favorites such as shea butter, but also castor oil which is renowned for promoting scalp health and hair growth.
This drugstore favorite features aloe vera juice, a major humectant as its first ingredient, so you know right off the bat it's bringing the moisture that parched curls need. Its third ingredient, behentrimonium chloride, is one of the cationic conditioners Lane mentioned earlier that smooths raised and frizzed hair cuticles, providing slip, and major detangling properties. To seal in that moisture, this ultra-rich conditioner also features coconut oil. And at $7 a bottle, you can give it a shot without sacrificing $$$. (Maui's Curl Quench line also has a curl cream that made our list of top products.)
ICYDK, dullness is a sign of dryness. This conditioner quenches thirsty curls while locking in moisture for major shine. It features all three must-have ingredient categories Lane recommends (humectants, cationic conditioners, and emollients) in the form of glycerin, behentrimonium and cetrimonium chloride, and avocado oil. Consider your curls shined, sealed, and delivered.
As most curly hair folks know, the right hair mask can work as a conditioner if it manages to meet your hair needs without weighing down your curls. This Christophe Robin hair mask works like a deep conditioner that leaves even the thirstiest curls hydrated and defined. Its main ingredient, prickly pear seed oil, operates like a super-powered argan oil and, in fact, contains more antioxidants than argan oil, meaning its reparative properties are through the roof. (Consider these other hair masks if you have dry, damaged hair, but want to check out a few more options.)