Natural Hair 101: Everything You Need to Know About Deep Conditioning

Natural Hair 101: Everything You Need to Know About Deep Conditioning

Brands and influencers alike promote tons of information about deep conditioning, but not all of it is correct. That's why we're going to spend a little time cutting through the nonsense, fillers, and misinformation. By the end of this post, you'll have the most essential information about maximizing your deep conditioning sessions and using products that work.

Ready? Let's go!

Deep Conditioning, Defined
Deep conditioning is the act of utilizing a concentrated, heavier conditioner with absorbing (taking in) and adsorbing (sticking to) properties on the hair for a designated length of time. Depending on the label's instructions for use, deep conditioning sessions typically last 10-30 minutes, and can be performed with indirect heat, steam, or by simply covering the hair.

The Benefits of Deep Conditioning
Literally, everything.

Depending upon their formulation, deep conditioners can perform a wide variety of tasks. Deep conditioners are usually broken down into two main categories: moisturizing and strengthening (although some deep conditioners are a little bit of both). Moisturizing deep conditioners are used to restore internal hydration to the hair, provide intense moisture, and leave hair feeling soft. Strengthening deep conditioners do exactly this — make hair stronger and preventing breakage by temporarily patching up areas of damage with proteins, amino acids, and ceramide-rich oils. They can also help reduce or prevent further heat, color, and chemical damage, depending on their formulation. Some deep conditioners fall in the middle, and can be considered the best of both worlds. They help with all of the above to a varying degree.

Here's the bottom line: deep conditioning can cover a multitude of hair sins — but they will not reverse damage that is already done (and please don't let anyone tell you otherwise). There's a small (and I mean small) possibility that a deep conditioner can make damaged hair look a little better, but damaged hair is damaged hair — and you'd have to use that same product every single time to sustain those tiny results (which can add up quickly).

Natural Hair 101: Everything You Need to Know About Deep Conditioning

But here's the good news — deep conditioning across the board helps to balance the pH of the hair, restore elasticity, and close the cuticles. That last one is a biggie — closed cuticles enhance shine, smooths the hair, cuts down on frizz, and helps maintain the internal moisture balance of the hair.

How Often Should You Deep Condition?
The honest answer is, as often as your hair needs it.

Some naturalistas deep condition weekly, others every two weeks, some monthly. There are even a select few who deep condition multiple times a week. While I will always advocate that you do you, I must be honest and say that I don't think deep conditioning on either extreme end of the spectrum (several times a week or monthly) is the move.

Deep conditioning three or four times a week is excessive, uses way too much product, and can lead to hygral fatigue (which makes your hair feel mushy and weak, leading to breakage). On the flip side, allowing your hair to come into contact with water-based cleansers and deep conditioners leads to dehydration, breakage, and buildup issues.

To give your hair a fighting chance, I recommend at least every 2 weeks. Even if you only clarify monthly, and co-wash on the weeks between, throw a deep conditioning session in on one of those co-wash days. This rings especially true if you have damaged hair (frequent breakage, splits, or color-treated). Currently, I deep condition weekly, alternating the product of choice based on my hair's needs.

Should You Use Protein, Moisture, or Both?
The answer lies in an assessment of the current state of your hair. Visit this Natural Hair 101 post to get the 411 on determining your hair's elasticity, porosity, and strength. That will give you a better idea of where to start with your deep conditioning rotation (or if one is even necessary). Here's a general breakdown of what a month's worth of deep conditioning looks like:

Healthy Hair
(normal elasticity, generally strong, low* to normal porosity)

Week 1: Moisturizing deep conditioner
Week 2: Hybrid (moisture + strength) deep conditioner
Week 3: Moisturizing deep conditioner
Week 4: Strengthening* deep conditioner

Damaged & High Porosity Hair
(low elasticity, breakage-prone with lots of split ends, high porosity)

Week 1: Strengthening* deep conditioner
Week 2: Hybrid (moisture + strength) deep conditioner
Week 3: Hybrid (moisture + strength) deep conditioner
Week 4: Moisturizing deep conditioner

*Note: For low porosity and protein-sensitive hair, use your favorite protein-free strengthening conditioner.

Since my last curly cut, I've been sticking closely to the "Healthy Hair" deep conditioning regimen, although I'm not rigid. It all depends on the condition of my hair before wash day, and what I've been doing activity-wise in the days leading up to it. The key is to be flexible and responsive to your hair's individual needs, while maintaining consistency in care and product selection.

Natural Hair 101: Everything You Need to Know About Deep Conditioning

The "3 Ts" of Deep Conditioning
Now that we've got the foundational knowledge out of the way, let's get to the nuts and bolts of deep conditioning. According to Instagram University, you need to buy a deep conditioner, mix it with avocado, banana baby food, honey from your neighborhood bees, and  then apply the mix, sleep in it, say a prayer, then rinse.

If you need to do all of that, you're using the wrong product.

From a scientific and experiential perspective, effective deep conditioning boils down to 3 Ts: time, temperature, and type. Let's break it down:

One of the hallmarks that sets deep conditioning apart from regular rinse-out conditioning is the amount of time the product spends on the hair. If you read the label of most deep conditioners designed for natural hair, they recommend allowing the product to sit on the strands for 10-30 minutes. Why? Because products are tested before going to market, and instructions are created based on their findings and best practices. Often times, when a label instructs you to follow a certain time frame for use, it's because they've narrowed down how long it takes the ingredients to reach maximum adsorption and effectiveness.

What this means is that although some ingredients (like proteins) stick to the hair immediately, with more time, they are able to patch, cover, and stick to more damaged areas than they would if only a few minutes were given. In this article by Jc of The Natural Haven, she shares that deep conditioning ingredients are able to reach maximum adsorption (sticking to/externally repairing) after 20-30 minutes — 60-100% more than they achieve in the standard 3-5 minute time frame. It is important to note that no further adsorption occurs after 30 minutes. So no, you don't need to deep condition overnight.

The Takeaway: Leave your deep conditioner on for at least 20 minutes for maximum effectiveness. 30 minutes, if you have color-treated or otherwise damaged hair. The exception here is to follow what your product label says. Some intense protein treatments only need a few minutes to work, and that will be stated on the label.

Natural Hair 101: Everything You Need to Know About Deep Conditioning

In that same article by Jc linked above, she discusses the impact of temperature on the hair when deep conditioning. Heat helps lift the hair cuticle, and allows for deeper penetration of ingredients. Heat also facilitates increased adsorption of ingredients to the hair. Heat around 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) so as to not burn the skin or scalp is found to be most effective. You can achieve this by placing your conditioner in a hot water bath, sitting under a hooded dryer, using a steamer (like mine), or a thermal cap (like these from Pydana Collection). Just remember to set a timer for no more than 30 minutes.

The Takeaway: Your deep conditioner + indirect heat = maximum effectiveness.

Now that we've got the super science out of the way, it's time to talk about my favorite part: products.  The result you desire to achieve with your deep conditioning session will largely depend on the products you choose. Almost all deep conditioners will have a base that consists of water and fatty alcohols (like cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl). What comes after that will determine how a particular deep conditioner will work for you. But in general, you can follow these guidelines to decipher which deep conditioner to pick up:

Mega Moisture:
Look for oils, butters, and humectants (glycerin, aloe vera, panthenol, honey, agave, propylene glycol are all humectants) in the first 5-7 ingredients after water. These ingredients will soften and moisturize the hair, along with the fatty alcohols.

Protein Power:
If your hair is weak, limp, and lacking elasticity, a dose of hydrolyzed proteins will breathe new life into your strands. Within the top 10 ingredients (because protein formulations and strengths can vary wildly), check for hydrolyzed proteins (such as vegetable, quinoa, rice, and keratin),  keravis (aka Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein PG-Propyl Silanetriol), and/or cetrimonium chloride to give your hair a strengthening boost.

The Balancing Act: If you're looking for elasticity, moisture-protein balance, and pH balancing, your conditioner will likely have a top 10 blend of moisture and protein properties like the ones listed above. In addition, they will also likely contain omega and ceramide rich oils like avocado, wheat germ, sunflower, safflower, flax seed, and hemp. Some may even contain a dose of amino acids (like glycine, alanine, proline, arganine, lycine, and glutamic acid). Others may rely heavily on vitamins and botanicals like biotin, spirulina, horsetail, ginger, wheatgrass, and more.

The Takeaway: Go beyond what the product says it'll do, and don't always take what influencers say at face value. Marketing, gimmicks, and saying nice things because it's #sponsored are real. Turn to the ingredient list — it will give you far more insight into what the deep conditioner can do for your hair.

Feel free to save, repost, and share this swipe story that summarizes the 3 Ts!

The 3 Ts of Deep Conditioning Natural Hair 
The 3 Ts of Deep Conditioning Natural Hair 
The 3 Ts of Deep Conditioning Natural Hair 
The 3 Ts of Deep Conditioning Natural Hair

My Picks
Of course, I wasn't going to close this thing out without sharing what I'm currently using in my regimen across the board:

Mega Moisture: tgin Honey Miracle Hair MaskBe Kekoa Be Lola Handcrafted Hydrating Mask
Protein Power: tgin Miracle RepaiRx Curl Protein Reconstructor
Perfect Balance: Soultanicals Fro' Despair Vitamin Hair Repair (full review here)

Next up, we're going to talk styling — how to layer and apply products, and how to maintain results overnight for maximum moisture between washes.


  1. have you ever tried out the Carol's Daughter Monoi Repairing Hair mask? I kind of want to know how it compares to the Ouidad $40 recovery mask.

  2. EshagreenmonsterJuly 3, 2015 at 1:53 PM

    Thanks! I haven't deep conditioned in awhile and my hair has been dry. I normally do a whole avocado, honey, EEVO, grape seed oil, vitamin E oil, shea butter, brown sugar, and some ACV and water. I used to leave it on for 45 minutes but I'm definitely not doing that again, if there's no need. Since the whole avocado makes a lot I use the rest as a face mask and body scrub.

  3. Should you use a rinse out conditioner before or after you deep conditioner?

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