I used to think leave-in hair conditioners (and their extra-restorative cousin, hair masks) were unnecessary, something I'd grown out of. In fact, before working on this story, the last time I'd used a leave-in conditioner was in the '80s, when my mom untangled my hair with that purple bottle of Aussie spray before brushing it. However, as it turns out, there are myriad reasons to use leave-in conditioners on grown-up hair (even if you're already using the best shampoo and conditioner you can find).
K18 Mini Leave-In Molecular Repair Hair Mask
Marc Anthony Leave-In Conditioner Spray
Best budget pick
Mizani 25 Benefit Miracle Milk Leave-In Conditioner
Best for curly hair
It's a 10 Hair Care Miracle Leave-In Product
Pureology Color Fanatic Leave-In Conditioner
Best for color-treated hair
Olaplex No. 6 Bond Smoother
The celebrity favorite
Amika Hydro Rush Intense Moisture Leave-In Conditioner
Best for extra-dry hair
Christophe Robin Hydrating Leave-In Mist With Aloe Vera
Best for sensitive skin
Kerastase Nutritive 8H Magic Night Hair Serum
John Frieda Frizz Ease Daily Nourishment Leave-In Conditioner
Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine Leave-In Conditioning Cream
Sun Bum Revitalizing 3-in-1 Leave-In Conditioner Spray Detangler
No matter your hair type, leave-in conditioners are nourishing and help tame annoyingly frizzy hair by providing smooth, soft frizz control. These leave-in treatments help repair split ends and can even — as they did for me while reporting this story — make your hair bouncier, shinier and younger looking than it's been in years. I tried dozens of leave-in conditioners for our roundup, considering weight, texture, scent, detangling ability, softening results and price. I also reached out to celebrity colorist Cassondra Kaeding (her client list includes Demi Moore, Natalie Portman, Kendall Jenner and the cast of the latest Mean Girls) to find out how these formulas work and why we should try them. What I learned? If we want the best-looking hair, most of us should use leave-in conditioners — starting today.
What does leave-in conditioner do?
"Leave-in hair masks are designed to provide additional moisture and detangle the hair," Kaeding said. "They are great to use regularly to help combat dryness and frizz — adding softness, smoothness and bounce to compromised strands."
How do I use a leave-in conditioner?
It honestly couldn't be more simple: After your normal cleansing routine, apply the leave-in treatment, either by spraying on or rubbing onto your towel-dried hair, if you're using a cream. Pay particular attention to your ends and go light on your roots. Comb it through, then style as usual. Occasionally, a leave-in mask will require an additional step. In most cases, follow product instructions for best results.
Should I use a leave-in conditioner if I’m already using regular conditioner?
"Absolutely!" Kaeding said. "They're more of a treatment product, so they are a wonderful addition to your hair care routine even if you're already using a regular conditioner. Leave-in hair masks often offer more intense benefits, while regular conditioners tend to be a bit lighter and more suitable for everyday use."
What should I look for in a quality leave-in conditioner or hair mask?
Kaeding explained: "When choosing a high-quality leave-in hair mask, my priority is finding a formula that specializes in repairing damage (rather than just covering it up) — as not all leave-in hair masks actually have reparative benefits. As a colorist, I understand the strain these services can put on the hair, so maintaining hair health is crucial. I tend to look for a lightweight formula that effectively strengthens and repairs without causing buildup on the hair."
The best leave-in conditioners
Honorable mentions: Leave-in conditioners we tested that didn't quite make the cut
I tested 30 leave-in conditioners for this story. Some were highly rated online but gloopy and weird in person, and a few made my hair drier than it had been before (I love JVN so much but his Hair Styling Creme made my hair feel like hay). Others were pricey but ineffective (for example, the Drunk Elephant Wild Marula Tangle Spray was stupid expensive without feeling particularly special). Then there were a handful of leave-in conditioners that I liked fine, but for one reason or another, weren't quite right, at least for me and/or our team. Here's our list of honorable mentions.