What's In Your Conditioner?

Ever wondered why a conditioner worked for your favorite curly-haired guru and not for you? If you’ve ever wanted to know what’s in a conditioner, how and why it works on the hair, then this is for you.

Conditioners are perhaps the most important element in your regimen. The conditioning step is when key cuticle elements are addressed and reinforced in the hair— they are what make or break a healthy hair regimen. Conditioners restore moisture loss to the shampooing process and improve hair’s manageability. They are meant to adhere to the hair’s cuticle and produce long lasting effects that remain after rinsing. Conditioners play the most critical role in maintaining the hair’s moisture/protein balance. Conditioners are important because they are specifically formulated to help hair achieve strength or softness; by working on the surface of the hair to improve its look, feel, and texture.

It goes without saying that damaged hair reaps the greatest benefit from conditioning because damaged hair has more negatively charged binding sites along its protein structure than healthy hair. It is true that damaged hair is cumulative and can never really be permanently repaired, but it can temporarily be conditioned and improved by filling in the holes and gaps along the cuticle and add a layer of protection against further damage.

Understanding the Structure of Hair

Picture your hair like a shingled roof. Your hair is like the flat shingles on a roof of a house that overlap each other, forming a cuticle layer over a hair strand. When the roof is new, it's able to shield the house it covers. It can stand up to the rain, sun, all the elements, etc. As it ages, the roof begins to become brittle/dry and the roof's protective barrier can be breached.

When the cuticle flakes overlap each other very tightly, your hair looks best. And when the cuticle layer is damaged and the cells are not tight anymore, much like the weathered roof, your hair goes limp or looks frizzy. And then these frayed cuticles of different hair strands get entangled resulting in hair breakage and hair loss.

Breaking Down the Hair Conditioner

Conditioners reduce frizz, decrease friction and make your hair manageable. Hair conditioners have certain cationic surfactants made of positively charged molecules that bind to the negatively charged hair strands. Damaged hair is more negatively charged. The surfactants completely envelope the hair strands and the acid in the conditioner pulls the cuticle flakes back in place against each other and as a result, your hair feels smooth.

Conditioners are:

  • Water-based

  • Cationic (positively charged)

  • Low pH products

  • Anti-static

  • Contain humectants and

  • Lubricating substances like polymers, oils, waxes, thickeners, emollients, emulsifiers

  • Sometimes hydrolyzed amino acids to improve the overall quality of hair


A conditioner’s ability to condition the hair is largely dependent on the pH of the hair, hair’s general condition, and the size of the conditioner’s various molecules.

“Higher pH damaged hair more readily binds with conditioner because hair in this state bears a strong negative charge that attracts positively charged conditioners. The positive charge of the conditioner neutralizes damaged hair‘s strong negative charge. This neutralization of oppositional charges allows the cuticles to lie flat.”

Like conditioners, healthy hair carries a positive charge and when matched with a positively charged conditioner, hair tends to resist the conditioning product.


Cationic Conditioning Agents

The two main types of cationic conditioning used are: cationic surfactants and cationic polymers. These ingredients work together to improve the hairs shine, sheen, and pliability.

Common Cationic Surfactants:

  • Quaternium 22

  • Quaternium 26

  • PPG 9 Diethylmonium Chloride


Cationic Surfactants:

Cationic surfactants are the static fighters in most product formulas. Ingredients are typically amines (nitrogen based organic compounds) combined with fatty acids. When reading labels you can identify these surfactants by their fatty acid prefixes:

Common Conditioner Fatty Acid Prefixes:

  • Lauric/Lauryl

  • Myristic/Myristyl

  • Palmitic

  • Stearic/Stearyl

  • Oleic/Oleyl

  • Linoleic,

  • Cetyl

  • Behenyl


These ingredients deposit themselves on the shaft minimally and leave very little residue behind after rinsing. They do not deposit well and rinse cleanly. They also tend to be used more in conditioning or moisturizing shampoos than in conditioners.


Cationic Polymers

In conditioners, cationic polymers are more desirable and important than cationic surfactants because of the expectation that conditioning will add shine, bounce, and softness that will remain long after rinsing your hair.

These polymers are often added to thicken the consistency of the conditioning product itself, also adds structure and thickness to the hair. Cationic polymers improve manageability and reinforce existing curl patterns. Polysaccharides and proteins make up the largest group of natural cationic polymers.

Common Polysaccharides:

  • Chitin

  • Cellulose

  • Cellulose derivatives such as hydroxyethyl cellulose


”Sometimes various hair product ingredients undergo quaternization, a chemical process that enhances their hair binding abilities. Quaternization of polysaccharides and proteins enables them to adhere extremely well to the cuticle scales. Quaternized compounds form light, clear films on the cuticle. Of these polymers, polyquaternium compounds are the most commonly used in conditioners. Polyquaternium 4 and 24, for example, are both quaternized varieties of cellulose. The polyquaternium umbrella covers more than thirty seven different compounds, and as science progresses, the number of polyquaternium compounds will only grow.”


Common Cationic Polymers

  • Cellulose

  • Polyquaternium -4

  • Polyquaternium 7

  • Polyquaternium 10

  • Polyquaternium 11

  • Polyquaternium 24

  • Polyquaternium 29

  • Polyquaternium 44


More in part 2 next week!


Sources: Hair Structure and Chemistry Simplified. The Science of Hair Care. “The Histology of Keratin Fibers” in Chemistry of Natural Protein Fibres.