Set Free - The Book About Hair by Richard Stein


Conditioning Your Hair

Conditioning is another of those things that seems more obvious than it is. And while it Set Free - The Book about Hair by Richard Steinis harder to do actual damage with the wrong conditioner, your hair can certainly end up looking bad.

First of all, it is important to distinguish between two kinds of conditioning: the kind you do in conjunction with shampooing to help repair minor damage and keep your hair looking shiny and healthy, and the "therapeutic" or "deep" conditioning for major problems that is usually done before washing so that the treatment substances can do their work and then be washed out. What is considered everyday conditioning is what I will discuss here (although I am personally opposed to using a conditioner every day); conditioning treatments will be dealt with in the next chapter.


Considering the amount of money manufacturers spend touting their conditioning products, you would think unconditioned hair was some sort of disaster. I'm sure it will come as no surprise, however, to learn that conditioners are not the panacea advertisers would have you believe. What a conditioner does do, as I mentioned earlier, is simply to coat the shaft of the hair (usually with a waxy or silicon-derived substance) so that the cuticles lie flat and sleek rather than flaring out at all angles (which makes the hair seem dull, flyaway, and dry). It can also "stick together" frayed (split) ends. And conditioner can protect the cuticles--encase and/or help to smooth them--and consequently protect the hair shaft itself from damage...or further damage.

Conditioners have another advantage: they can lock in a certain amount of moisture--under the waxy coating--so that hair doesn't get parched from heat, sun, or dryness in the air. Rather than nourishing hair, therefore, it functions much as a leather reconditioner does, giving it a good waterproof protective coat so that the moisture it does contain isn't lost, and harsh factors in the environment (or in your styling habits) cannot do more harm.


I think it is fair to say that problems with conditioning come not from too little too late, but from too much too often. The fact is that while conditioners can consistently help the texture of processed and/or damaged hair--and they certainly make postwashing detangling easier--normal healthy hair needs relatively infrequent conditioning. Even damaged hair does not need it after every washing. Two to three times a week is enough conditioning for anyone unless the hair is damaged at the roots.


When you do use a conditioner, make sure you use it properly. Conditioner is meant to be applied to the hair, not to the scalp, where it can clog pores, make you break out around the hairline, and leave a waxy residue on the skin. (For moisturizing your scalp, review Chapter 2.)

This means that once you have the small amount--about the size of a quarter--you intend to use in your hand, you must concentrate on getting it onto--and into--the ends of the hair...which is where it is almost always needed most. You should therefore start your conditioning at least halfway down the length of your hair and preferably confine it to the ends alone. Even if your goal is detangling, you will, I think, find it instructive to examine the knots in your hair: you will see it is really the ends that cause the tangles, rather than the middle of the strands of hair. Comb out will also go much more smoothly if you work from the ends up...something that is always done in a salon.

And remember, conditioning cannot cure the problem of damaged hair; it can only lessen it. The damage comes from the stripping and breaking of the cuticles and from fraying at the ends of the strands. It is this damage that allows hair to catch on itself, tangle, look dull, and feel coarse. The only real cure for damaged hair is to cut it, although there are a number of relatively therapeutic preparations (both commercial and--my preference, of course--homemade) that can make damaged hair look better and feel healthier until the damaged parts grow out enough to be trimmed off. (See Chapter 5, "Keeping Hair Shiny," for recipes.) This is also a good place to mention that having hair trimmed regularly can stave off further damage, as the chips and breaks and peeling of the cuticle can and will travel up the hair shaft unless they are removed.


Just as I recommend diluting shampoo, I recommend diluting your conditioner: a ratio of one part conditioner to three parts water (use your prepared water) is about right for most conditioners. When you have mixed your conditioners), be sure to shake them before use, as the water and other ingredients tend to separate.

I also advise using less conditioner than manufacturers suggest: you should probably use as little as you can to get the results you want. If you do not choose to dilute your conditioner, use much less than suggested: half a teaspoon is all you need for short hair, one teaspoon for medium lengths, and two teaspoons (at the most) for very long hair. If you feel you need further guidelines, or your conditioner is somehow unusual in its concentration or consistency, read the instructions on the bottle and then halve the suqqested amounts.


I hope it is not too obvious to mention here that light conditioners are appropriate for oily or coarse hair-as well as for fine hair that gets limp looking--and that heavier conditioners are best for fine, frizzy, processed, or weather-damaged hair.

Some general advice: stay away from anything that sounds like a stew of chemicals. There are certain natural substances I look for in conditioners--among them jojoba oil, coconut oil, and lavender, rose, and cucumber extracts. These shouldn't hurt anybody's hair.


These products are essentially the same: water-based light conditioning that combs in or sprays onto hair after shampooing to ease comb-out and help protect against damage associated with brushing or blow-drying. Because most do not contain the waxy elements that can build up with other conditioning formulas, they wash out completely in the next shampoo.


One of the newer "technological advances" is the blending of cleaner and conditioner in the same product. It is difficult for most people to imagine how one product could simultaneously accomplish what seems like two contradictory processes. It is just as hard for me to imagine they do both equally well. There are plenty of adequate to good products that either clean or condition, so stick with the specialists.


Because, as I said, I don't think of healthy, normal hair needing much in the way of a conditioner unless it has been abused in some way, I offer three basic conditioners for dry, oily, and "compromised" hair that has been permed or colored.

Dry hair can be lackluster, brittle, look grayed and "old". Try this recipe to give it substance, help lift its spirits.

Dry Hair Conditioner
2 tablespoons coconut oil1 teaspoon crushed dried rose petals (optional)
1 tablespoon avocado oil1 tablespoon rosemary oil
2 capsules vitamin E (400 l.U. each) 

Shake or mix together until well blended. Apply and leave on 10 minutes. Wash out with diluted shampoo. Rinse with herb or flower water.

Oily hair can always use a pick-me-up that doesn't leave it stripped. This recipe will do just that...with the added benefit of being a brightener.

Oily Hair Conditioner
2 tablespoons wheat germ oilJuice of one lemon (strain out any pulp)
1 tablespoon crushed nettles1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Massage into hair and scalp. Leave on 5 minutes. Wash out with 2-3 sudsings of diluted shampoo, and rinse carefully.

We all know what can happen to overtreated hair. This preparation staves off that "fried" look and helps your hair to recover. The special ingredients here are the flowers.

For Treated Hair (Colored and/or Permed)
2 tablespoons coconut oil2 capsules vitamin E (400 I.U. each)
1 tablespoon avocado oil1 tablespoon crushed marigolds
1 tablespoon virgin olive oil1 tablespoon rose petals

Process for 30 seconds in blender. Leave on hair for 10 minutes. Wash out with 2-3 sudsings of diluted shampoo. Rinse thoroughly with herb or flower water.

Richard Stein Hair Salon, New York City

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