Conditioner, the product that makes our hair feel shiny, healthy, and alive (which is ironic because hair’s technically dead). I’ve previously written about the composition of shampoo, so it’s time to explore what goes into the complementary hair product.
I hope you get the really poorly created pun of “hi-story” to “hair-story” above, if not then just bear with me and keep reading below. Traditionally, hair care simply included using a soap-like shampoo to keep your hair clean, followed by a mixture of essential and carrier oils. These oils are what acted as conditioner until the technology was developed to created the modern formula we use today. The first modern conditioner was introduced at the 1900 World Fair by Frenchman Edouard Pinaud. His formula was composed of primarily oils and was used until the 1920s when compounds were added that created a formula similar to what we are familiar with today.
the structure of hair & how conditioner works
Unlike shampoo, the structure of hair is extremely important for understanding how conditioner actually works. Hair is composed of three parts, the medulla, the cortex, and the cuticle. Keratin is the primary component found in hair, approximately 97%, and causes the hair to be negatively charged (this is important for later).
Being the outermost part of the hair, the cuticle is the component we are most concerned with here. The cuticle is composed of dead cells that sit on top of each other in a roof-tile-like pattern. The cuticle cells are held together via hydrogen bonding, however, over time these bonds become weakened and cause the hair to look frizzy. The act of using shampoo removes the natural oils that our hair produces which keeps the frizziness down. Stripping the oil from our hair is the reason why we need conditioner to help put these cells back in their place.
Conditioner is an acidic product, this is because of the hydrogen bonding I mentioned earlier. Acidic formulas contain a lot of hydrogens, which will help keep all the static-y negative charges on our hair happy. Adding an acidic formula to our unhappy basic (basic meaning negative here) hair will create a neutral-like situation that makes our hair appear healthy and shiny. TLDR; acidic formulated conditioner wraps a coat around our negatively charged and frizzy hair to help tame it.
So what exactly are the ingredients that make up the acidic formula that is needed for conditioner? Aside from standard ingredients like water, alcohols, preservatives, pigment, and fragrances I’ve listed the key ones below.
Cationic surfactants & polymers
These are the active ingredients necessary for conditioners to have their smoothing effect on the hair. As I explained above, these cationic compounds carry positive charges that neutralize our hair’s negative charges by surrounding the cuticle. Examples of these ingredients include: quats, cetrimonium chloride, and dicetyldimonium chloride
Silicone is a very controversial ingredient often included in cosmetic formulas. However, fret not, silicones simply sit on top of our hair cuticle and are responsible for giving that shiny appearance. Additionally, silicones give our hair that extra slip needed to be combed, braided, and handled with more grace. The golden example of a silicone used in conditioner is dimethicone.
Emollients and Humectants
A very important part of a conditioner is for it to actually condition the hair, i.e. keep it nice and moisturized. Ingredients like emollients and humectants keep the moisture locked into our tresses, preventing it from drying out and breaking. Examples of hydrating ingredients include panthenol, glycerin, and ethers.
Much like emollients and humectants, oils keep our hair healthy and hydrated. By providing additional hydration, the oils added in a formula can add an extra functionality for the product. Examples include coconut oil and olive oil.
When shopping for conditioners you’ve probably noticed that different bottles claim to offer different benefits. One common conditioner claim is to create stronger hair with less breakage. This can be done with the addition of proteins. While these ingredients will simply create a coating around the cuticle, much like the cationic surfactants, they can add a slight protective barrier that may prevent breakage. Examples of proteins include hydrolyzed keratin, silk, and elastin.
So hopefully, this post taught you a bit about the science and composition behind hair conditioners. Next time you’re in the shower reading the back of the conditioner bottle try and figure out which ingredients are helping your hair!
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