Hair mask or conditioner: which should I choose?

Since the early days of civilization, humans have been using lotions and oils to spruce up damaged locks and add a glistening appearance to skin and hair. From Ancient Egypt to Victorian-era England and up to the 21st century, the discovery of the best hair care products has been a hot topic for many. Two commodities in particular often stand out from the crowd in popularity when it comes to achieving Rapunzel-Esq locks: hair conditioner and hair masks. While they seem to be very similar products, there is quite a difference between them. So what makes a hair conditioner different than a hair mask, which should you be using, and when? We explore everything you need to know about conditioners versus hair masks.

What is a hair conditioner?

Hair conditioner is a nourishing post-shampoo step that helps soften, smooth, and detangle your strands after cleaning while simultaneously decreasing friction and improving combability. Conditioners are hydrating products often made up of anti-static and lubricating ingredients like oils, emollients, waxes, humectants, and the most active and used agent, silicone. When mixed, these elements help to replenish some of the moisture that is lost while shampooing.

How does the hair conditioner work?

Daily hair conditioners work to refortify the cuticle of the hair strands with a protective coating that allows hair to grow easier and reduces the chances of breakage. When our tresses are exposed to harmful elements, the outer layer gets more and more damaged, forming gaps in the cuticle until it ultimately breaks—the conditioner works to fill in those gaps to prevent excessive injury to the hair.

Different conditioners are formulated to perform various tasks. Some can volumize hair, while other’s primary purpose is to protect from further damage or UV exposure. Everyday use can replenish essential nutrients, preserve health, and re-hydrate strands.

Why should I use a hair conditioner?

Hair conditioners are a miracle product for unruly, dehydrated hair. They make it easier to comb out the hair post-shower, smoothing appearance, detangling strands, increasing shine, and combatting dryness. By making strands more manageable, conditioners can help make hair easier to style, reducing breakage and split ends.

How do I properly use a hair conditioner for best results?

After shampooing, you should apply a conditioner formulated to address your hair concerns liberally to wet (not soaking) hair - if your hair is too wet, it could reduce the effectiveness of your conditioner. The general recommendation is to use a conditioner each time you shampoo, but if you find your hair gets greasy or flat, condition less often. Those with fine hair should also be mindful and look at the ingredient list of their perspective conditioner.

Use the amount of conditioner recommended on the bottle and distribute evenly throughout the midshaft to the hair ends. Run your fingers or a wide-tooth comb through your hair to help work it in. Let it sit for 2 - 4 minutes before rinsing thoroughly with cool water.

What is a hair mask?

Just as a face mask is designed to hydrate, nourish, and clear the skin, a hair mask - or hair masque - works in a similar way to boost the health and appearance of your hair. They are often formulated with butter, oils, and other wholesome ingredients to deeply nourish and strengthen the strands while providing intense benefits that can target specific hair problems.

How does a hair mask work?

Hair goes through a lot of stress. Whether it’s from exposure to natural elements, heat styling, chemical processing, or hair coloring, it can cause some severe destruction to the structure of the hair strands and follicles, leading to breakage, dullness, and permanent damage. Masks are a therapeutic hair treatment that can help heal the hair and provide you a remedy to your most challenging hair concerns.

While hair masks are often compared to hair conditioners, they are quite different. Most of the benefits a conditioner provides are restricted to the outer layer of the hair, helping condition the hair and make it more manageable. On the other hand, hair masks work to deeply penetrate the inside of hair shafts to nourish, regenerate, and even heal damaged locks.

Why should I use a hair mask?

Hair masks are the secret sauce to healthy hair, providing dramatic results in the strength, shine, and hydration departments. They can restore dry hair and put an end to pesky frizz and flyaways. When used regularly, hair masks can also prevent future damage, help thicken hair strands, and promote hair growth. There are many masks available on the market and even more DIY concoctions you can mix up so you can find the best option for your specific hair type.

How do I properly use a hair mask for best results?

The first step to an effective masking routine is to make sure your hair is clean and prepped to soak in all the nutritional benefits of your hair mask. After gently shampooing your strands (focusing on the roots, of course!), rinse them thoroughly with warm water and squeeze out all excess water. Unless specifically directed to do so, you should never apply a mask to dripping wet hair.

Once your hair is clean and squeezed out, begin sectioning the hair and applying the mask liberally throughout each segment. Once applied to the entire head, use a wide-tooth comb to distribute the mask evenly throughout the hair. If any mask build-up on the comb, wipe it off and reapply it to the hair.

Use clips or soft pins to wrap your hair up and let it sit for as long as directed. Typically masks call for about 30 minutes of absorption, but some may suggest leaving on overnight! For an added boost of absorption, cover your masked-up hair in a shower cap and wrap it in a warm towel to keep your hair warm and encourage deeper penetration.
Dermatologists and hair experts typically suggest using a hair mask about 1 - 2 times per week in place of your regular conditioner.

Resources: