Reader Question: Difference between a moisturiser and a conditioner

Q: Is there a difference between conditioner and a moisturizer? If so, what is it and is one better or more necessary than the other? I keep seeing people say they moisturize and condition their hair when I thought if you condition your hair you are also moisturizing it. I didn't realize they serve different purposes.

A: Well you are right, there really isn't much of a difference as long as we are talking creamy conditioners (examples herbal essences hello hydration, aubrey organics honeysuckle rose etc)  and creamy leave ins (anything creamy looking e.g giovanni leave in, scurl, carefree curl, herbal essences leave in) . If the conditioner is not creamy then it is a whole different game because it could be protein or an oil mix or a silicone serum or just simply fragranced water (really!!).

The main difference between rinse outs and leave ins is

1. Rinse outs are usually made to deposit onto hair in order to temporarily repair and strenghthen it. The deposits also make the hair feel very soft.
2. Leave ins are designed to add a little temporary softness and make hair easier to manipulate but do not deposit much in order to avoid build up. 

I have made a little table listing the ingredients and their functions to explain in further detail

Ingredient and Function
Hair Conditioner (Creamy Rinse Out)
(Leave in Conditioner)
Water - Makes the product easy to spread. Will penetrate hair. Usually around 80-90% Usually around 80-90%
Fatty Alcohol such as cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol or cetostearyl alcohol - Main action in conditioner itself, stop the fat and oil from separating. Does add some softness to hair Usually around 2-4% Usually around 1-2%
Depositing surfactants such as behentrimonium chloride (advanced surfactant) or cetrimonium chloride.  Adsorb (not absorb) meaning stick onto hair creating a feeling of softness. Correct charge on hair due to shampoo use. Usually around 2-4% (Usually deep treatments contain advanced surfactants) Usually around 1-2% (Rarely if ever contain advanced surfactants)
Anti build up  surfactants such as stearamidopropyl dimethylamine - These tend not to adsorb onto hair and therefore less likely to build up. Good for slip Usually around 2% Not usually present
Repairing polymers such as silicone or polyquartenium (2-4%) - Adsorb onto hair, temporarily repair split ends. Excellent for slip. Usually around 2-4% Usually around 2%
Other oils (mineral oil and almond oil) - Add slip, help 'seal' in moisture Usually less than 1% (not always present) Usually around 2% (but can be much higher - 10%)
Preservatives, pH balancers and fillers (i.e the stuff you want to read - jojoba, aloe vera, herbal extracts) Less than 1% Less than 1%
Special Exemptions
**Humectants such as glycerin and aloe vera (many conditioners do not contain these in significant amounts but some do). Typically over 3% is necessary for a reasonable effect
**Hydrolysed protein or amino acids (such as glutamic acid) . Again, not all conditioners contain these, they are used to repair hair damage and can penetrate hair depending on size. Usually 1-2% in a rinse out conditioner and less than 1% in a leave in.

1.Book - Cosmetic and Toiletry Formulation
2.Book - Hair Care: Physiology to Formulation
3. Dow Corning Formulation


  1. Thanks for the info. It's important we know the differences.

  2. Great post again JC! Really interesting esp for those of us who make our own products (chm)

  3. I see. I probably read the question wrong because I thought the reader was talking about leave in conditioners vs moisturisers (like pink oil moisturiser or Carol's daughter Hair Milk).

  4. I have always wondered why the HE conditioners seem to have the same ingredients as their leave-in counterparts (now I realise the proportion is probably different).

    For a while now, I have been taking the (unscientific?) route of adding aloe vera juice and EVOO to a dollop of HEHH and using it as a leave-in. I probably threw the formula out of whack for all I know, but my hair seems to love it.

    P.S. For the record, I have never seen the HE leave-in at any of our stores in Jamaica. That's my excuse. ;)

  5. thanks all

    Ruth I don't think that adding ingredients to a conditioner would necessarily ruin it. Sometimes experiments work out quite well. I have the HH leave in and it actually isn't that great (to me!), it just isn't terrible either so I will finish it.

    Angie - I looked up the ingredients in the products you talked about. In both cases they are water, oil and a surfactant. In the case of pink oil it is water, mostly mineral oil and then sorbitan oleate(a surfactant). In the case of hair milk it is water, mostly natural oils and then cetyl alcohol (a surfactant).

    Different ingredients but same principle

  6. sorry that would be cetearyl alcohol in the hair milk

  7. Jc, (before I forget) I noticed a new product being promoted online... Extenzz. The second ingredient is lecithin, so I am curious about what lecithin in that quantity does (if anything) for our hair.

    [This product is combed/brushed in - and left in - to reduce shrinkage, by the way. I can see how it could work, although I wonder about removal.]

  8. Thanks JC, so if I am understanding you: you're basically say that leave-in conditioners and (what I've historically understood to be) moisturisers are essentially the same thing (or almost the same minus conditioning agents) Thanks for the education. Much appreciated.

  9. fantastic post Jc, it's almost like you read my mind! i was discussing this with a friend cos i was telling her i tend not to use rinse-out conditioners as leave-ins, because of the build-up they may cause due to higher concentrations of certain ingredients. You have explained it very clearly as i wasn't finding the right words to express myself, i can show her this.

    I am curious about what the lecithin would do to hair too in the Extendzz product (i just received a sample of it), so i am off to do some research, cos all i can think of right now is it's a choline source for our acetylcholine (love me some neurobiology), but i don't see how that would help in hair styling, or maybe that as it helps bind fat molecules to water (so, maybe helps retain water on the hair, hence weighing it down and keeping it elongated, hence the product's claims of reducing shrinkage? hmmm
    i need to look this up.
    What do you think Jc? (sorry don't want to add to your work load)

  10. This is really interesting, as we sometimes get confused by the labels and product functions.

    I would really love to read on the difference from conditioner to masks.

    Some people -as myself- use masks as conditioner, to massage in and rinse out immediatelly. And also use the hair mask to deep condition 1 to 4 times a month (depending on hair needs)

    Also, some of my friends use conditioners as masks, to deep condition. this did not work so well for me, but i'd like to know how it works too..

    Thank you!!

  11. What about Emulsifying wax, other vegetable wax or beeswax, Do they build on hair like I heard? If yes, to minimize build up, should we choose a conditioner or a moisturizer that contains these ingredients?

    Thank you

  12. This explains why the most moisturizing conditioner I've used as a leave-in was marketed as a leave-in (as well as a deep treatment). Great post!

  13. ouoggggghhhh so what do i use to keep my curly when wet froy wen dry hair moistured through out the day...jerry curl juice? frustrating


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