Deep Conditioning: Dry Hair, Wet Hair or Shampoo Hair?

Continuing on with the deep conditioning update, I know I was supposed to discuss about time and temperature next but it occurred to me that an important question that is often asked is about the initial step before conditioning.

1. Oil as a conditioner (pre wash treatment)

Oil for the purpose of conditioning is always applied to dry hair. This is because water repels oil and if your intention is to use oil to penetrate hair then your hair needs to be dry. You can wet your hair first or mix the oil in conditioner if:

-you want to limit how much water penetrates hair
- you do not like how your hair feels when oil is applied to it dry
- you want to use the oil to seal in moisture
- you want to use the oil to help reduce damage post washing

2. Water based Conditioner

For this article I am referring to a regular water based conditioner (deep, intensive, mask or rinse out) that is coated onto hair with the purpose of repairing damage, softening, cuticle smoothing and/or moisturising.

Scientifically, the preferred method of getting the maximum amount of conditioner to adsorb and then potentially penetrate (only ingredients that can) is :

  1. Shampoo with a product containing anionic (negative) surfactants
  2. Rinse off shampoo - this is important
  3. Apply conditioner which contains cationic (positive) surfactants 

Possible Questions:

Q: Why use a shampoo first?

Hair carries a slight negative charge which is enhanced when you use a shampoo with a negative charge. Hair will adsorb the conditioner better because the positive charge in the conditioner is attracted to the negative charge on the surface of hair. For the purpose of getting the best result from a shampoo, surfactants with a charge are best for example
- gentle sulfate shampoo - SLES (sodium lauryl ether sulfate) which is negatively charged
- mild sulfate free shampoo - cocamidopropylbetaine/cocobetaine/cocabetaine which is zwitterionic

Q: Why should you rinse off the shampoo?

Some naturals like to 'buffer' their shampoo by directly adding conditioner to it before rinsing it off. Some also like to simply apply the conditioner before rinsing off the shampoo. In both these cases, the negative charge of the shampoo and the fact that it is present in a large amount interferes with the ability of conditioner to stick to the surface. Two outcomes are possible in this case:

1. Conditioner does not stick to the surface and is washed off along with the shampoo
2. The shampoo and conditioner bind together and create build up on the surface of hair.

Q: Can you condition first and then shampoo?

Yes you can but you will be removing conditioner that stuck to the surface of the hair from the initial conditioning process. You will need to condition your hair again in order to smooth the cuticle. Your process would look like

-Deep Condition
-Rinse out conditioner
- Leave ins, oils, styling products etc

Q: Can you deep condition on dry hair?

Yes you can but remember the rules about using shampoo afterwards (see the question above). Applying shampoo first and rinsing before applying a conditioner does however give the best result in terms of conditioner adsorption.

J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp 351-359, 1991

J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp 263-278, 1993

Ok, next post is on temperature and time of application of a conditioner.


  1. A particular youtuber does the DC, wash, rinse out process and claims it works for her. to me, it doesn't make sense scientifically, but her hair is okay with it. How about co-wash before a DC. Like using a wash out conditioner to remove some dirt and then applying a hair treatment?
    Also, is it necessary to do oil treatments since most naturals seal their hair regularly through out the week, meaning there's already enough oil that's been working it's way through the hair strands all week? Just a thought.

    1. 1. Co-washing before is fine but the only possible problem is build up over time because conditioner is not able to wash as well as shampoo.
      2. If you regularly use oil, you may choose not to do an oil treatment, this is perfectly fine. I find though that the prewash makes sure that the strands are well covered as I use much more oil than I would on a day when I am adding water/oil to moisturise my hair. So the oil treatment is just a chance to have that excess oil without it being a problem since I intend to wash it.

  2. I gave the wash process you listed a try and so far I love it. I am blogging about it now. This post contains a lot of great information. I really love your blog.

  3. Thanks for posting this article about ways to condition my hair. I hear so many tips, and see many videos on YouTube of other women and their regimen and what worked for them. Some have said to leave the conditioner in even if it is not a deep conditioner and other say just use conditioner to wash your hair. All these tips and regimens hooplah - however, being that you scientifically proved what is the healthiest haircare, I will follow this advice over the others. Thanks!

  4. Hi JC i have been following your blog for a while now but this is my first time leaving a comment/question.
    A friend told me that the powders like henna or shikakai are damaging to the hair because of their sand like texture they scratch the follicules and can even remove some from the strand. i would really like to have your opinion because i use shikakai once a month and i'm planning to start using henna to coulour my hair.
    Thanks a lot

    1. Hi Anonymous - I have henna'ed my tightly kinky hair since 2010. I also use indigo since I have grey hair (<10%). I can say with certainty that the henna and indigo leave my hair wretchedly dry, and it takes a few deep conditioning sessions to make it feel softer again.

      That said, I tried a "henna rinse" (henna with protein-free moisturizing conditioner added to the dye released henna mixture) this weekend and was truly satisfied with how my hair turned out. I will reserve full strength henna/indigo for my hairline touchups, and use henna rinse to color the rest of my hair. I cannot speak about shikakai since I haven't used it, but the henna and indigo are vegetable derived and will macerate when hot water is added. I have noticed that the fine particles of henna or indigo when allowed to macerate with the warm liquid of choice was too soft to scratch my scalp.


    2. I like the use of the word macerate :)

      I think SS explanation seems quite good. Some people use things like brown sugar to scrub their scalps and they can get away with it......I would avoid it. I do think that most Ayurvedic powders tend to be much finer and since they are plant based, soften further with water. They are probably less of a worry than the sugar.

    3. to SS: I usually mix my shikakai with cold water and I find that the particles do not soften so I will try mixing it with hot water and let it macerate. Thanks for the tip.
      thanks JC.

  5. Surprisingly, wet oiling does work for many people (especially those for who oiling dry hair doesn't work at all). Some wet or moisten the hair before, some mix the oil with water. I can't explain how it works, but it does.
    Here is a post about it, horribly translated with Google:

    1. The link did not work for me. I think it is important to distinguish between best practice for hair and actual practice in real life. Dry oiling the hair protects it from absorbing too much. Applying a water and oil mix is much more similar to moisturising rather than as a preventative measure for hygral fatigue. This does not mean that wet oiling will not work, it will work well for some especially those who have naturally oily hair (so do not need to worry about hygral fatigue).

      I see the link you gave me is a .de link. I actually read more German than I speak.......I will google it tomo :)

  6. Hi JC I have 2 questions:

    1) How does Soapnut/Shikkai fit into the scheme of things, are they considered negatively charged?

    2) In terms of dry oiling as a conditioner, what do you mean? Using Coconut Oil as an example since it needs to be applied overnight to be fully absorbed into the cortex. You'd saturate the strands, set the hair however you want for the night, cover with a plastic cap, and go to sleep. Then in the morning do your normal routine? Does the oil need to be saturated like in an oil wash or just run down the hair lightly? A "hot" oil treatment is also done on dry hair, is it the same premise?

    I would guess that if you live in a high humidity area like Florida or the tropics year round, conditioning with an oil makes sense since you hair is absorbing water from the air and you would be sealing in the already contained water. Also, if your hair isn't dry, that also makes sense since you are keeping the moisture content already there.

    Is it something that someone would do at night only since oils take longer to absorb into and/or adsorb onto the hair?

  7. So,the dry stripped feeling that shampoo can give our hair should we not be concerned with that because it allows better penetration of the conditioner? This is a very interesting post. Especially since there are so many naturals that don't use shampoos at all.

  8. Hi, I wanted to ask if we apply deep condition on the scalp?


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