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 • Hair  • Haircare Guides  • Do You Know Your Conditioner From Your Hair Mask?
difference between conditioners and hair masks

Do You Know Your Conditioner From Your Hair Mask?

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Main Image – Bratco/Stocksy

In a beauty world where there are shampoos, dry shampoos and pre-shampoos, BB creams and CC creams, and BHAs and AHAs, it’s no wonder people get confused. Are we all just meant to instinctively know what it all means?

And what about the difference between a hair conditioner and a hair mask? What *actually* is it?! Because from where we’re scrolling, the two products look and sound like they do exactly the same thing… Or do they?

Between all the leave-ins, the rinse-outs and the leave-in-then-rinse-outs, we’re pretty sure it would be helpful to know what it all means. So, allow us to break it down for you so that you’re crystal clear on the why, the when and the how!

Why do you need a conditioner? When should you apply a hair mask? How do you fit both of them into your haircare regime? And most importantly, do you even need to buy both?

We grilled hair loss expert Dr Jodi LoGerfo, creator of hair care line Alodia Dr Isfahan Chambers-Harris, and founder and CEO of Strength x Beauty Lisa Abbey to help us bring you the answers.


difference between conditioners and hair masks cream texture close up skin care concept

Image – Jula Isaeva/Adobe


Conditioners and hair masks – decoded

First things first, what is a hair mask?

“It’s like a face mask, except it’s used for your hair,” Dr LoGerfo explains. “I would consider it an intense conditioner to help with [things like] dryness, heat damage and chemical damage.”

A split end’s worst enemy, hair masks are more concentrated than a conditioner and penetrate deep into the hair shaft, just like a face mask does to the skin. They can be used anywhere between 1-2 times a week, sometimes monthly, depending on your hair type.

So what goes into one? “Most hair masks contain lots of hydrating and rich types of ingredients like natural oils and butter, so they are often heavier than traditional conditioners,” says Dr LoGerfo.

OK, this all makes sense. But hang on, what’s the difference between that and a conditioner? For a start, a conditioner is applied more frequently and after every shampoo. “Hair conditioning is an important part of a healthy hair care regimen, especially for those experiencing hair breakage,” she adds.

As well as detangling, combatting static, protecting the hair from damage caused by daily grooming and helping to make the hair easier to manage? Conditioners “coat the outer frayed cuticle of the hair shaft and mend it.” Bye-bye breakage!

Rinse-out conditioners are used after every shampoo so they don’t hang around in the hair for long, “They are applied immediately after shampooing, then washed out, which can help combat the drying effect of shampoos and increase manageability and enhance shine,” says Dr LoGerfo.

As for a leave-in conditioner, these are one step up from a rinse-out conditioner and provide extra hydration, protection and intense detangling. They’re more lightweight than a hair mask and don’t leave hair looking greasy or heavy.

And finally, ever heard of conditioner-only washing, or ‘co-washing’? “It’s the use of rinse-out conditioners in place of shampooing,” explains Dr LoGerfo. “It’s gained popularity, especially among those with naturally curly hair as a gentle technique for hair cleansing.”

But be careful what you wish for. “I’m not a fan of this because, over time, conditioner use can lead to the accumulation of residue,” she warns.


Young woman in swimsuit showering at outdoor shower. conditioner hair mask

Image – Bratco/Stocksy


Conditioner VS hair mask – which one is for you?

According to Dr LoGerfo, “Everyone should be using a conditioner.” Abbey adds that “if your hair is basically healthy, feels slightly dry or tangles easily, a regular conditioner will do the trick.”

Use a rinse-out conditioner daily, or whenever you shampoo, and substitute it with a leave-in conditioner once or twice a week for a more intense condition.

Add a hair mask into your regime a few times a week, only if your hair needs a little bit more TLC. “These are ideal for hair that is very dry, damaged, chemically treated or prone to frizz, breakage and lack of shine as they can provide intensive repair and hydration,” explains Dr Chambers-Harris.


close up of pipette with pouring liquid serum with golden bottle and shadows on beige background

Image – Anna Schlosser/Adobe


Conditioning tips from the pros

How often should I use a hair mask?

“On curly/coily hair once a week,” says Dr Chambers-Harris. “Finer, straighter hair types can use one 1-2 times a month,” she says. We recommend Gisou Hair Mask (£20/$24.47) for its shine-inducing, nourishing benefits.


Which ingredients should I avoid in conditioners and hair masks?

“Silicones can build up on the hair over time, leading to a dull appearance,” warns Dr Chambers-Harris.

Healthline says that, for some of us, “Silicones accumulate on the hair over time, weighing it down” and “the hairs then become heavy and greasy as more and more silicone deposits on the hair.”

“Artificial fragrances may contain chemicals that can irritate the scalp or cause allergies and some products contain heavy waxes that can weigh down the hair,” Dr Chambers-Harris adds.


What sort of daily conditioner should I use?

“If your hair is fine, limp or fragile, choose a protein-based conditioner to strengthen and add body,” recommends Lisa. “If your hair is thick, coarse or dry, reach for a hydrating or moisturizing conditioner.”

Try Pantene Pro-V Miracles Silky & Glowing Conditioner (£6/$7.34) or Sukin Hydrating Conditioner (£3.97/$4.86).


How to do a ‘hair facial’ for dry, damaged, curly hair

Do what’s called a ‘pre-condition’. “Wet your hair, squeeze out the excess moisture then apply a mask from root to tip,” explains Abbey. “Let it penetrate for a few minutes then rinse, shampoo and squeeze out moisture again before applying your regular conditioner.

“Work it through to the ends, then rinse well with cool or cold water for added shine,” she says. This is called a Pre-Condition.


How to do a ‘hair facial’ for fine, limp, flat hair

Abbey recommends the ‘reverse shampoo’ technique. “Use your regular conditioner first then shampoo to finish,” she says. “This will hydrate and heal the hair without leaving any residue behind to make it flat or limp.”


The takeaway

A conditioner is lightweight and protects and detangles the hair whilst making it easier to manage. A hair mask is heavier in consistency, it’s super-hydrating and works a little harder by penetrating deeper into the hair shaft.

According to the pros, conditioner should be used more frequently and introduced into your daily hair routine. Whilst a hair mask should be used a few times a week – sometimes monthly – according to your hair type.

A leave-in conditioner does the same job as a rinse-out conditioner, only one level higher, hence why it is designed to be left in the hair.

The difference between this and a hair mask is that a leave-in conditioner is more lightweight than a hair mask. You wouldn’t leave a hair mask on overnight unless you were planning to wash your hair the next day as they can leave the hair looking greasy and feeling heavy.

In short, everyone needs a conditioner. Those with more pressing hair needs – like chemical damage, dry, brittle hair and split ends – should invest in a hair mask to give their hair a bit of extra love and attention.


Meet the experts

Dr Jodi LoGerfo is considered an authority on hair loss and her years of research and clinical work on patients with various types of alopecia enable her to diagnose the various patterns of hair loss, identify the causes and offer the latest treatment options.


Dr Isfahan Chambers-Harris has a PHD in Bio-Medical Sciences and a passion for healthy hair. She combined her skills and knowledge into the creation of Alodia, an innovative hair care line that is poised to take hair care to the next level.


Lisa Abbey is the founder and CEO of Strength x Beauty, a healthy for you, plant-based hair + body care is made by women, for women, created by a hairstylist with a passion for high quality, cruelty-free beauty without harmful ingredients. 


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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University

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