Leave-In Conditioners: The Ultimate Guide for Natural & Transitioning Hair

I'm a big believer in leave-in conditioners. Rarely will you ever catch me with a style that doesn't have some sort of leave-in.


Because in my opinion, leave-in conditioner is an essential part of moisture retention, maintaining healthy hair, and long-lasting style. It doesn't matter what texture or type of hair you have, a leave-in should be at the foundation of every style you do. Now what you do after that leave-in, whether it be LCO, LOC, LCB, LBC, ABCDEFG...that's none of my business. But I promise you, if you don't already have one, you need some type of leave-in conditioner as a part of your regimen.

Leave-In For What?
Do you want your hair to remain hydrated? Do you want to prevent breakage as much as possible? Do you want your hair to feel soft and smooth? Would you like your hair to shine more? How about a little less poof, and a little more of the "right" kind of frizz (you know what I'm talking about)? If you answered yes to any one of the questions above, then that's exactly why you need a leave-in conditioner as a part of your haircare and styling regimen. Transitioning ladies, this goes for you too. The key to a successful transition centers around preventing breakage at the line of demarcation. After washing and deep conditioning, applying a leave-in helps prevent breakage by installing moisture and improving elasticity. If something hasn't been quite right with your hair, and you're not using a leave-in, that should probably be the first thing you change.

Do I Really Need to Buy Another Product?
Maybe....maybe not. Depending on my mood, and styling product choice (some products just don't want to be friends with any leave-ins), my leave-ins range from halfway rinsed out conditioner, to spritzes, to full-strength goopy goodness. I'm not here to tell you to buy anything (I promise...scout's honor). If you've been using a DIY leave-in or diluting your favorite conditioner and it's working, then do you boo! Just remember to keep an eye on changes in color, odor, and consistency (because of the lack of preservatives) in anything you pre-mix and store.

But if you're like me and you're a product junkie, the world is your oyster. There are leave-ins of all shapes, sizes, price ranges, and consistencies -- and they all serve their purpose. But how do you know which one you need, which one will work for your hair type, and which one pairs with what product? The truth is, there is no one end-all, be-all answer. We all have different textures and types of hair, and a lot of the time on the same darn head. So what I'd like to offer up is stepping away from the hair typing system for a second, and instead do some product typing. In other words, let's match up the type of product you're using to the type of leave-in conditioner that works best. Ready? Let's go!
The Ultimate Leave-In Conditioner Match Up

Now that we've got the quick reference guide above, let's explore why I categorized and made the recommendations I did:

Heavy Gels & Custards
Heavy gels and custards are thick, stiff, and notorious for not having the best slip. They tend to form the hardest gel casts, which can mean crunchy hair. But all hope is not lost. Pairing your thicker gels with a medium-consistency leave-in will ensure that your hair doesn't turn into a pack of crispy ramen noodles. In my experience, medium consistency leave-in conditioners provide enough moisture and protection for the hair, while still playing nicely with the heavy gels. Heavier and thicker gels can be difficult to pair products with (tried to work out a combo with Eco Styler lately?), but medium consistency leave-ins have just the right thickness and water content to avoid the dreaded white balls of gloop. Of course, before you haul off and start mixing random product combinations, perform a patch test, or at least rub them together in your hands to see what happens first.

Jellies & Souffles
Of all the gel types, jellies and souffles tend to be the most moisturizing. They often contain humectants like agave, glycerin, and honey relatively high on the list, which can lend themselves to being too sticky if used in excess. Because of the moisturizing nature of these gels, pairing them with a light leave-in (think watered down conditioner) works best. Too much moisture means the hair will never dry, will look stringy, feel tacky, and result in mega frizz (the kind you don't want). Jellies and souffles tend to be mucous-y and gooey in texture, and a light leave-in conditioner helps balance out. Light leave-ins tend to mix really easily with this type of styler.

Thin/Liquid Serum Gels
These gels are often quick and to the point. Depending on the formulation, they have varying levels of staying power. But what they all have in common is polyquats -- those styling polymers responsible for encouraging curl clumping and hold. The liquid gels may or may not have oils and extracts in them, but for the most part none of them possess the particular quality of being moisturizing. For this reason, pairing these runny stylers with rich and creamy leave-ins guarantees that your hair won't be dried out when all is said and done.

Defining Creams
On the rare occasion that I use a defining cream, leave-in conditioner can seem like somewhat of an afterthought. After all, defining creams are a glorious combination of moisturizers, conditioners, emollients, oils, butters, and polyquats. They provide touchable hold, and super soft hair. You could skip a leave-in altogether here, but I don't recommend it. Where the other styling products form gel casts that help lock the moisture into the hair, defining creams really don't have that capability. So the more hydration you can pack into your hair prior to, the better. But you don't need anything super heavy, because it is not only redundant, it will leave you with never-drying mushy hair. A leave-in spray provides just enough moisture to help prep your curls for styling.

Blow Drying/Heat Styling
If you plan on using heat in any capacity, whether it be for a blowout, roller or rod set, or as prep for flat ironing, using a leave-in is vital to the health of your hair. Leave-ins (often labeled as smoothing creams, primers, or blow drying cremes) for heat styling provide heat protection by maintaining the internal hydration of your hair, smoothing it, filling in cuticle cracks, softening, and improving elasticity. All of these things will help prevent heat damage and breakage. However, using the right type of leave-in is key. If you plan to do a style that thrives on moveability, a light spray leave-in like It's a 10 Miracle Leave-In (I'm partial to the one with keratin) or Infusium 23 Pro-Vitamin B5 is optimal. However, if you are rocking a twist, braid, or bantu knot-out, a medium or light leave-in is perfect. See the chart above for product ideas.

Whew! I hope all of that made sense. Of course, this is not a definitive list, and by no means is anything written in stone. If you find that one type of leave-in works better than another for a particular product, then don't change it! This is really just a launching pad for ladies who aren't crystal clear on how and when to use certain types of leave-in conditioners.

Up next: my favorite wash and go combos :)


  1. I have two, Oyin Hair Dew and Cantu. I got a sample of the TreLuxe untie the knot, it's looks like it may it on my list too.

  2. I tried to ignore leave-ins early in my journey because I thought with a moisturizing cleanser, deep conditioner and a conditioning styler, it was redundant. I've come to realize it really is necessary, and my current favorite is Miss Jessie's Leave-in Condish. Thanks for this article!

  3. Oyin is magic! It and the KBN Shealoe are amazing

  4. Leave-Ins are so vital! I need to try that MJ condish, I keep hearing great things about it!