If you have 4C hair, you’ve likely tested many leave-in conditioners in your lifetime. Even after careful research, it’s not uncommon to try something that promises to “cut your detangling routine in half” but doesn’t actually do the trick.
Unfortunately, almost everyone with 4C hair has gone through this trial-and-error phase. And it comes as no surprise, given that there are so many factors like hair porosity and texture to consider. But is there a way to make this process a bit easier?
We called on two natural hair experts to help us figure out which leave-in conditioners work best for 4C hair. (Because let’s face it, skimming through customer ratings won’t always cut it). But before we dive into our list, let’s address a few common questions.
MEET THE EXPERTS
Dr. Karen Kagha is a medical and cosmetic dermatologist based in Southern California.
What are leave-in conditioners And how do they differ from other hair conditioners?
We’re glad you asked. Conditioners are essential to keeping your kinks moisturized and healthy, but not all are created equal. They generally fall into three categories: regular conditioners, deep conditioners and leave-in conditioners.
A regular conditioner, which is typically left on for a few minutes after a shampoo, only hydrates the outer layer of the hair. It can also be useful for softening your strands, but the benefits pretty much end there.
A deep conditioner, on the other hand, takes this process to another level by penetrating the hair shaft. This helps to restore moisture loss, build elasticity and even repair damage.
Leave-in conditioners are lightweight styling agents that enhance moisture retention, control frizz and, most importantly, make the detangling process easier. As such, they can (and should) be used in conjunction with your other conditioners for extra moisture.
Why are leave-in conditioners needed for 4C textured hair?
Those with tighter curl-patterns are more prone to experiencing dryness and breakage than other curl types. This is because your scalp’s natural oils are unable to travel down the hair shaft. Leave-in conditioners supplement that moisture and, in doing so, protect your hair from further damage or breakage.
As Tamika Gibson explains, “Leave-in conditioner coats the hair cuticle, thereby locking in moisture, which makes the hair shaft smooth. Whether your hair is low or high porosity, using a leave-in conditioner will help protect it from the natural elements and from damage caused by hot tools like curling irons and manipulation through styling.”
FYI, hair porosity refers to the hair’s ability to retain moisture and, according to 103 Collection founder Melinda Herron, “how well oils can pass through the cuticle layer.” So, if you find that your curls easily absorb water and products, then you probably have high porosity hair. If it’s more difficult for moisture to penetrate, then you likely have medium to lower porosity hair.
What should I look for if I have low porosity 4c hair?
Well, for starters, skip the heavy butters and oils. These products tend to sit on top of the hair instead of penetrating into the shaft, eventually leading to major buildup on the scalp. Dr. Karen Kagha, a dermatology physician in Southern California, suggests looking out for hydrating products with humectant and emollient ingredients like honey, aloe vera, flaxseed, and glycerin.
What should I look for if I have high porosity 4c hair?
High porosity 4C hair can quickly absorb moisture, but the downside is this moisture is just as easily lost. To address this, Herron recommends protein treatments.
“High porosity hair requires weekly deep conditioning, preferably with a protein treatment to repair the hair's natural moisture retention. I also suggest using a silicone-free heat protectant to help seal in moisture and prevent breakage,” she says.
Which ingredients should I avoid?
The main things to steer clear of are alcohol and parabens, which can cause dryness and irritate the scalp, according to research. “If you are a natural, no heat curly girl, you may also want to avoid silicones, dimethicone and mineral oils, which can weigh your hair down,” Gibson explains.
Herron adds, “Beware of ingredients like diethanolamine (DEA) triethanolamine (TEA), isopropyl alcohol and fragrance. They can cause breakage and dry out the hair.” Duly noted.
How to best use leave-in conditioners:
Gibson advises 4C gals to “apply leave-in conditioner on clean hair, so that the ingredients penetrate the cuticle properly.” In other words, use the leave-in right after you wash and condition your hair. But if you’re unsure of how to apply it—don’t worry. Herron gave us a step-by-step guide below:
Gently towel dry hair by pressing out the excess moisture rather than rubbing it, which can create friction.
Apply leave-in conditioner, making sure to cover all strands from root to tip.
Use a wide tooth comb to detangle and follow with a paddle brush if necessary.
Apply a heat protectant before styling. (Just a few drops applied throughout hair before blow drying can help prevent breakage.)
Style as desired.
Now that we know what to look out for and how to best use these products, allow us to introduce 12 top-notch leave-in conditioners that’ll work wonders for your 4C hair.
Best for: Overprocessed and damaged hair
Customer review: “My hair is super thick, but this wonder of a leave-in makes detangling a breeze and cuts styling time in 1/2 for my 4c hair.”
Thanks to fair trade shea butter and Jamaican black castor oil, this rich leave-in brings life back to damaged curls by moisturizing each strand and supporting their elasticity to resist further breakage. The paraben-free formula also controls frizz and softens the hair, which makes detangling more seamless.
Best for: Dull hair, dryness and detangling
Customer review: “[I] definitely like the ingredients and love when [this] leave-in hits your hair. It automatically absorbs it, making it feel moisturized. I have high porosity natural hair, which means my hair is always dry and since using this product, my hair isn't as dry.”
Formulated with slippery elm and squalene, this conditioner offers just enough slip to help you get through your toughest knots. Not only does it hydrate your curls, but it also adds softness and shine. Plus, the fruity scent is divine.
Best for: Hydration and styling
Customer review: “I usually tend to create my own product from scratch, but this leave-in is definitely a time saver! It is amazing to define curls or just to keep your hair moisturized.”
This fast-absorbing conditioner is infused with avocado oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as protein and kiwi, which promotes blood circulation in the scalp. Thanks to its foamy consistency, you don’t have to worry about your hair feeling weighed down.
Best for: Dryness, dandruff, shine, detangling
Customer review: “I have low porosity hair and this stuff works like magic. It smells like cake batter and it provides so much more moisture than most leave-ins that I have used.”
Calling all low-porosity 4C girls: This leave-in features rice milk and vitamins B, C and E, which strengthen the hair shaft, as well as humectants like aloe vera and slippery elm. Another star ingredient is rosehip, which protects your hair against sun damage and dehydration.
Best for: Breakage, heat and color damage, dryness, growth
Customer review: “Great moisturizer for my 4c hair. It doesn't leave a lot of product buildup as other products have been doing.”
If you struggle with retaining length, you may want to give this leave-in a try. The lightweight formula boosts moisture, promotes hair growth and adds definition to your kinks by way of biotin and black castor oil.
Best for: Dryness, preventing breakage
Customer review: “My hair was dry and brittle. This product brought my hair back to life. Very moisturizing but not greasy.”
Designed specifically for 4C coils, this leave-in boasts hydrating ingredients like pomegranate extract, honey and babassu oil, which add softness and prevent breakage. The formula also helps to prevent frizz and adds shine to lackluster locks.
Best for: Detangling
Customer review: “My 4c hair gets tangles and knots so easily that when I wear a fro, I get so much breakage when it's time to detangle. This product creates so much slip in my hair when it's damp and makes detangling a breeze.”
We’ve seen enough five-star reviews to know that this knot sauce works like magic on even the most tangled coils, so if you struggle with detangling on wash day, get yourself a bottle. The creamy conditioner includes humectants like flaxseed oil and aloe vera—and as a bonus, it’ll leave your hair smelling like vanilla cake batter.
Best for: Dryness, split ends and breakage
Customer review: “My hair is very kinky and this works wonders for me, especially since I blow dry my hair. Leaves it feeling soft, manageable and protected.”
Lavender oil, rosemary leaf oil and nettle extract are just a few standout ingredients in this moisturizing leave-in, which aids in length retention and provides slip for detangling. Satisfied customers also rave about how the formula leaves their hair feeling super soft and shiny.
Best for: Controlling frizz, dryness, detangling, heat protection
Customer review: “This is liquid gold for my extremely coarse 4C dry hair. My hair is texlaxed, so finding a product that works on my relaxed/natural/texlax hair is a miracle! This makes my hair so soft and smells great.”
This is the product you want to use if you intend to heat-style your hair after wash day. The hydrating spray contains fennel seed oil, which strengthens your strands and prevents breakage, and coconut oil, which moisturizes and adds shine.
Best for: Dryness
Customer review: “As soon as I added this product to my hair regime…my hair completely 100% stopped shedding. Not just "less shedding," no more hair shedding! I'll never use anything else.”
Yadain is one brand that you don’t want to sleep on, thanks to their all-natural and organic recipes. Among their most popular products is the antibacterial and antifungal Shine & Glow conditioner, which helps heal the scalp and keeps coils fresh several days after washing. Plus, it’s infused with ingredients like almond oil, tea tree oil and sage leaf.
Best for: Dryness, damaged hair, growth
Customer review: “There is a noticeable difference in my hair since I have been using this product. It is getting longer and thicker.”
This moisturizing leave-in is formulated with aloe vera, agave and hibiscus, making it a staple for parched and brittle 4C curls. The product also doubles as a lightweight styler and can help with curl definition.
Best for: Dryness
Customer review: “I bought this item looking for something to bring the moisture back [to] my low porosity 4c natural hair and let me tell you, this was it. A little definitely goes a long way.”
Packed with nourishing ingredients like shea butter, aloe vera gel, cocoa butter and castor oil, this thick, multi-use pudding is deeply hydrating and absorbs quickly, leaving your hair velvety smooth. It also works wonders on dry and calloused skin.