best in class

The 10 Very Best Conditioners

“The reparative work this does is second to none.”

Photo: Marcus McDonald
Photo: Marcus McDonald

In this article

I’ve been writing about hair care for three years, and I still get excited when testing out new conditioners. For me, the best part of a shower is gliding my hands through my freshly conditioned hair. Once your shampoo has finished cleansing away the dirt from your roots to your tips, the conditioner steps in to reintroduce some moisture. The result? Soft, shiny, tangle-free hair. Or at least that’s how it should be. Conditioners have a fine line to walk. They need to quench your hair, but they also can’t be so heavy as to weigh it down. That’s why the best conditioners will be nourishing but lightweight, hydrating but never greasy. Below, I’ve found ten conditioners that strike that balance perfectly and are suitable for most (if not all) hair types — in fact, our best overall conditioner is perfect for my hair (fine, straight, color-treated) as well as for my colleague with thick, curly hair. So if your hair is fine and brittle, or thick and curly, I’ve found a conditioner for you. And, as I’m constantly changing my hairstyle, I’ve had the chance to put many of them to the test. But for the ones I haven’t gotten to yet, I spoke to 16 stylists, salon owners, and colorists to get their expertise.

What we’re looking for

Sulfate free

Sulfates sit in the surfactant family and act like powerful chemical detergents to deeply clean hair. They’re considered safe by experts (unless your scalp and hair is particularly dry, as they can be stripping), and are great at thoroughly cleansing away oil and impurities. But cleansing isn’t a conditioner’s job — your shampoo should be taking care of that. That’s why all of the formulas I’ve listed here are sulfate-free.

Key ingredients

We’re on the lookout for formulas that are packed with ingredients like plant and vegetable oils, seed butters, vitamins, fatty acids, and bond builders (for hair close to breaking). We don’t want to go overboard, though — too many fatty, nourishing ingredients will weigh hair down — so I’ve closely scanned each ingredient list to make sure it hits that sweet spot. (As I have color-treated hair, I also prefer formulas with UV-protection, as it prevents my color from fading.)

Scent

Like body wash or shampoo, conditioner is often scented. Since there’s nothing worse than having a cloud of fragrance you hate follow you around all day, I’ve noted the scents of each down below.

Size

I’m also keeping an eye on the total ounces of conditioner you’re getting included in the price.

Best conditioner overall

Sulfate free | Key ingredients: Moringa and jojoba seed oil, green tea, sunflower seed extract | Scent: Floral | Size: 12 ounces

I like hair products that I can feel working in real time. Verb’s Ghost conditioner does just that. When I allow it to marinate on my hair for three to five minutes, it feels as though the conditioner leaves a glossy bubble around my brittle, color-damaged ends. That’s thanks to the moringa and jojoba seed oil-packed formula, which moisturizes, detangle, and smooth hair. The other key ingredients, green tea and sunflower seed, provide natural boosted UV protection, which is especially important for dyed hair, as it stops your color from fading as fast. What’s truly great about the conditioner, though, is that it doesn’t weigh down your hair whatsoever. I have fine hair (which needs a lot of encouragement from a curly blow dry brush), but this conditioner doesn’t weigh my hair flat to my scalp like some other moisturizing formulas I’ve tried. As it deeply nourishes without weighing it down, it has a balance that makes it suitable for all hair types — fine, thick, wavy, kinky, and curly.

A good example of this is Strategist managing editor Kelsie Schrader, who has naturally curly hair, and adores Verb Ghost. She incorporated it into routine after her hair stopped responding well to her usual products, and while she was impressed by how much shinier her hair was after a single wash, she wondered if the effects were just a fluke. “They were not,” she confirms. Last year, she visited home for a few days, “and didn’t bother bringing any conditioner with me, figuring I’d use whatever my mom had.” After just one non-Verb conditioning she saw the difference: “My curls were less shiny, less soft, and less defined.” Stephanie Louis, owner of Stylebox Salon in Prospect Heights, also calls this conditioner a staple at her salon. It’s suitable for all hair types, reasonably priced, and does exactly what it should, so I’m naming it the best conditioner overall. (And the entire Verb Ghost range is solid: Their shampoo only narrowly missed the top spot in our shampoo piece — but that’s absolutely fine. You don’t need to match up your shampoo and conditioner, the best route is to mix and match to find a routine that works for you.)

Best less-expensive conditioner

Sulfate-free | Key ingredients: Coconut oil, shea butter, rice protein, and Pro vitamin B5 | Scent: Floral | Size: 12 ounces

Monday has fast become one of my favorite hair-care brands. Their range is filled with affordable products that work as well as their more expensive counterparts — and in some cases even better. Strategist senior editor Ailbhe Malone tells me that she reaches for her Monday conditioner over more expensive brands. “I used a different conditioner for a few weeks while I was away (a travel-sized L’Occitane Intensive Repair) and it was significantly less moisturizing,” she says. “I noticed the difference after a few days!” The formula, which Malone calls “quenching, but not too heavy” is packed with the nourishing ingredients I look for in conditioners triple the price. Shea butter and coconut oil are intensely moisturizing, while rice protein and pro vitamin B5 nourishes the hair from the inside out, making it feel and appear strong. (And Monday also has conditioners for fine or frizzy hair at the same price point.)

Best conditioner for fine hair

Sulfate free | Key ingredients: Fatty acids, shea butter, cilantro | Scent: Cilantro | Size: 8 ounces

Really, really fine hair demands a really, really light conditioner. For this, Malin + Goetz Cilantro conditioner is ideal: It’s light, but still delivers nourishing fatty acids and shea butter to fine hair and split ends. It’s so lightweight, in fact, that the conditioner can be used as a leave-in treatment (which hairstylist Brooke Jordan tells me she sometimes recommends for those with exceptionally fine hair.) Either way you use it, the mixture of fatty acids and shea butter will add some moisture into your hair cuticle and split ends (finer hair tends to be more brittle.) Cilantro is also a calming ingredient, which makes this conditioner kind to your scalp, too. It’s also worth noting that I recently crowned the sister Malin + Goetz shampoo our favorite shampoo overall.

Best for thick hair

Sulfate free | Key ingredients: Pro Vitamin B5, rice bran oil, acai fruit and maracuja seed oils | Scent: Citrus and floral | Size: 8.5 ounces

Thicker hair can handle a little more weight, but you still don’t want anything that’s going to make it appear limp or oily. Ash Fritzler, a master stylist who specializes in cutting and styling curly hair tells me that (as thicker hair formulas go), R+Co’s Atlantis is actually quite lightweight. Its hero ingredient is pro vitamin B5; B5 helps the hair retain moisture which makes it appear thicker, but it also nourishes the hair follicle to actually encourage the hair to grow. It also has soothing maracuja seed and acai fruit oil, which softens the hair, adds shine, and tames frizz. According to Jordan, the Atlantis line is moisturizing enough for even extremely dry or damaged thicker hair. (“Read: if you tried to bleach your own hair at home and it went horribly wrong,” says Jordan.)

Best conditioner for curly hair

Sulfate free | Key ingredients: Rice protein, flax seed, chia seed, and aloe leaf extract | Scent: Floral | Size: 8.5 ounces

Curly hair keeps oil trapped at the root, so it tends to be on the drier side. That means you want a conditioner with exceptional moisturizing qualities, but you also want to avoid anything that’s going to weigh your curls down. It’s easier to do this now, as formulations moved away from these ingredients in recent years. Ash Fritzler, a master stylist who specializes in cutting and styling curly hair at the Bird House salon in Brooklyn, tells me that before 2020, a “lot of curly-hair products used to have petroleum and mineral oils in them because it makes the hair shiny, but it also builds up on the hair.”

The R+Co conditioner is still extremely hydrating without stripping natural oils away.” It contains nourishing rice protein, and strengthening extracts from flax and chia seeds. The last great thing I love about this conditioner, though, is it has a really effective anti-humectant (humectants are molecules that attract water.) This means it’ll stop your hair from developing frizz in humid, summertime weather, and leave your curls smooth and defined.

Best for kinky and coily hair

Sulfate free | Key ingredients: Manketti nut and ximenia oil | Scent: Nutty | Size: 8.5 ounces

Kinky and coily textures need even more hydration than other curls. Moisture helps to keep your hair tangle-free and easier to twist out. Super-stylist (she won Afro Hairdresser of the Year at the British Hairdressing Awards three times in a row) Charlotte Mensah’s manketti conditioner delivers that moisture in buckets. It uses manketti nut and ximenia oil, both of which are commonly found in hair oils for the most kinky of hair textures. Fellow Strategist beauty writer Tembe Denton-Hurst, who has type 4A hair, said that after one use her “hair felt softer almost immediately after using it, and my twist out looked more bouncy and luscious too.”

Best strengthening conditioner

Sulfate free | Key ingredients: Bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate (bond rebuilder) | Scent: Citrus | Size: 8.5 ounces

After I bleached my hair at home during lockdown, I couldn’t brush through to my ends without sections of my hair cleanly snapping off. The only thing that restored its pre-pandemic glory was Olaplex. Hair is made up of three bonds, the more you mess with your hair, through color-treatment or heat damage, the more broken bonds you’ll have. Olaplex is a bond builder: Its patented ingredient of bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate enters and restores the broken covalent bonds found in the cuticles of your hair. If you’re someone with damaged hair, you may have been offered an in-salon version of an Olaplex treatment. Their conditioner (and the entire at home range, I’d recommend numbers three to five) are a less-concentrated version of this. But as Jordan puts it: “the reparative work this does is second to none.” He continues: “I have found it to be absolutely amazing when used in moderation — it can be heavy if you use it every day, so use it no more than once a week.” And even then, you don’t have to do much — a pea-sized amount does more than enough for my mid-length hair.

Best less-expensive for color-treated hair

Sulfate-free | Key ingredients: Soybean oil | Scent: Fresh | Size: 8 ounces

If you think you’d benefit from a bond builder, but you’re on a budget, Bondbar is a solid alternative. (It’s actually the only budget bond builder on the market.) “It’s cheap, and yet sort of a holy grail for what your hair needs: moisture balanced with protein,” says celebrity stylist Gregory Patterson. Unlike Olaplex, it doesn’t target the strongest covalent bonds of your hair. But it still repairs the broken bonds of color-treated hair, focusing instead on the hydrogen and ionic bonds.

Best conditioner for blondes

Sulfate-free | Key ingredients: Moringa seed oil, sunflower seed extract, soy protein, panthenol | Scent: Botanical | Size: 8 ounces

It’s been a while since we wrote about this conditioner, but I’m bringing it out of retirement because of its standout formula (which is still getting excellent review). It has the mixture of seeds, and plant oils that make for a truly hydrating formula, as well as soy protein which nourishes your hair. This is particularly important if you’re a bleach blonde, as you’re prone to breakages. But even natural blondes will benefit from this conditioner, as it’s less of a brass neutraliser, and more of a lightening product. “The toning effect isn’t as drastic (it’s billed as “brightening”), so you can use it a little more often,” says writer and platinum blonde Hesper Desloovere Dixon. “The products smell like a fancy tea, and the conditioner actually conditions enough that you don’t have to pile on serums and oils after the fact.”

Best conditioner for sensitive scalps

Sulfate free | Key ingredients: Aloe, oat milk, and green tea | Scent: Fragrance free | Size: 8 ounces

If you have a sensitive scalp, you’ll want to avoid all potential irritants. That includes fragrances, parabens, and of course sulfates. This conditioner ticks all those boxes. Yene Damtew, hairstylist and owner of Aesthetics Salon, also pointed out that this conditioner is free of essential oils, lactose, soy, and gluten (should you have additional sensitivities). What it does contain is aloe, and oat milk. In my reporting on the best eczema treatments, those ingredients are paramount, and their soothing properties apply just as well here, too.

Some more conditioners we’ve written about

Our experts

• Amy Abramite, creative director, stylist, and educator at Maxine Salon
• Siobhan Benson, stylist and owner of CutLoose salon in Brooklyn
Christin Brown, hairstylist
Tara Burke, New York–based hairstylist
Rogerio Cavalcante, stylist and owner of the Second Floor Salon
Yene Damtew, hairstylist and owner of Aesthetics Salon
Hesper Desloovere Dixon, writer
• Ash Fritzler, Bird House salon director and master stylist
• Joann Gruny, texture expert at Maggie Rose Salon
• Leigh Hardges, hairstylist and natural-hair specialist at Maxine Salon
• Masami Hosono, hairstylist and creative director at Vacancy Project
• Brooke Jordan, co-owner and master stylist at Bird House
• Stephanie Louis, owner of Stylebox Salon
Gregory Patterson, celebrity hairstylist
• Greg Ruggeri, owner of Salon Ruggeri
• Kelsie Schrader, Strategist managing editor
Patti O’Gara, Blackstone NYC colorist

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The 10 Very Best Conditioners