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Dermatologists' top tips for using leave-in conditioner

Are you getting your best results from a leave-in conditioner? Do you wonder if you even need this product?

To help you answer these questions, we talked with two board-certified dermatologists known for their expertise in treating hair conditions. They told us who can benefit from using a leave-in conditioner and shared their tips for how to use it.

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When do you see the benefits of using a leave-in conditioner?

Board-certified dermatologist Zoe Draelos, MD, FAAD

Right away. You should see less frizz. Your hair should be easier to brush or comb, so you’ll have less breakage.

─ Board-certified dermatologist Zoe D. Draelos, MD, FAAD

Board-certified dermatologist Paradi Mirmirani, MD, FAAD

It’s immediate. Your hair will be easier to comb and feel smoother.

─ Board-certified dermatologist Paradi Mirmirani, MD, FAAD

Who can benefit from using a leave-in conditioner?

This product is made to protect your hair, which can be helpful if your hair is:

  • Color-treated or permed

  • Heat styled, e.g., you use a blow dryer, curling iron, or straightening comb

  • Long

  • Curly

  • Dry and maybe also brittle

  • Fine and limp

  • Tangled, frizzy, or flyaway

Using a leave-in conditioner can add volume and make hair smooth and shiny. It can diminish frizz, static, and flyaway strands. Your hair should be easier to detangle and style.

“Some leave-in conditioners also help protect your hair from styling tools that use heat like blow dryers. If the product does this, it will be indicated on the packaging. You may see the words ‘heat protectant’ on the container,” says board-certified dermatologist Paradi Mirmirani, MD, FAAD.

Do you need a leave-in conditioner if you use conditioner in the shower?

Many people can benefit from using both. “If you have hair that’s long, fine, color-treated, permed, or styled with heat, using a rinse-off conditioner (one you apply in the shower) may not be enough. That’s when a leave-in conditioner is helpful,” says board-certified dermatologist Zoe D. Draelos, MD, FAAD.

Can you use a leave-in conditioner every time after you shampoo?

“Yes, it can be very helpful, especially if you have long or chemically treated hair,” says Dr. Draelos.

While it’s safe to leave this product in your hair, Dr. Mirmirani says there’s a limit. “You can leave it on your hair for up to a week if you apply leave-in conditioner from mid strands to the ends and not your scalp.” After a week, dermatologists recommend that you wash out a leave-in conditioner with shampoo and water.

Can a conditioner that you use in the shower be an effective leave-in conditioner?

No. “These products have different chemistry. One product is meant to be rinsed out and the other to stay on your hair,” says Dr. Mirmirani.

“Rinse-off conditioners often contain detergent. If you leave a rinse-off conditioner on your hair, it can damage your hair,” says Dr. Draelos.

Even if you follow the hack often seen on social media of pouring some rinse-off conditioner into a spray bottle and adding water, you can do more damage than good. That’s why dermatologists recommend buying both a rinse-out and a leave-in conditioner. They each do a different job.

What should you look for when selecting a leave-in conditioner?

Dr. Draelos recommends selecting a product created for your hair type, such as curly, dry, chemically treated, or fine.

If you have curly hair, you need more conditioning than someone with straight hair. Using a leave-in conditioner formulated for curly hair can make your tresses more manageable.

People who have fine, straight hair need a lighter leave-in conditioner to prevent their hair from looking limp and greasy.

What tips do dermatologists give for using leave-in conditioner?

You can get the benefits of using a leave-in conditioner by following these three steps:

  1. Shampoo and condition your hair in the shower. “The shampoo cleans your hair while the conditioner coats your hair to create a smoothing effect,” says Dr. Mirmirani.

  2. Towel dry your hair when you get out of the shower but leave it a bit damp. Applying leave-in conditioner to damp hair prevents you from getting too much in one area, which can make your hair look greasy.

  3. Apply a small amount of leave-in conditioner. To avoid greasy hair, you want to use the smallest amount of leave-in conditioner that does the job. Keep in mind that thick hair requires more product while fine hair needs less.

    When applying leave-in conditioner, you want to apply it only to your hair. Applying it to your scalp can cause build-up, which could irritate your scalp.

    Here’s how Drs. Draelos and Mirmirani recommend you apply each type of leave-in conditioner:

    • When using cream or lotion, place a small amount in the palm of your hand, rub it into your palms, and run it through your hair. Apply it only where your hair needs it, such as where your hair is dry, frizzy, brittle, or tangled.
    • When using a spray leave-in conditioner, spray the conditioner onto your hair from mid strands to the ends, using your hands to work the product through so that it’s evenly applied.
    If your hair still feels dry or frizzy, Dr. Mirmirani recommends that you apply a bit of oil like argan oil.

Following these tips can leave your hair healthy, hydrated, and manageable.

When to see a dermatologist

Sometimes, hair needs more help. If you continue to have hair breakage or unmanageable hair that you cannot style after using both a rinse-out and a leave-in conditioner, a board-certified dermatologist can help.

To locate a board-certified dermatologist, go to Find a Dermatologist and search for one who treats hair/scalp disorders.

Courtesy of Zoe Draelos, MD, FAAD and Paradi Mirmirani, MD, FAAD

Written by:
Paula Ludmann, MS

Reviewed by:
Zoe Draelos, MD, FAAD
Elisa Gallo, MD, FAAD
Laurel Geraghty, MD, FAAD
Shari Lipner, MD, PhD, FAAD
Paradi Mirmirani, MD, FAAD
Sanna Ronkainen, MD, FAAD

Last updated: 3/26/24