Your Drugstore Leave-In Conditioner Can Be So Much More

Discover the best affordable leave-in conditioners, according to hairstylists.

A woman with a curly braided hairstyle.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Think of leave-in conditioner as your hair's multitalented, overachieving best friend. Sure, you know someone (ie. your favorite conditioner) who makes your hair a little more moisturized, but do they also know how to tame frizz, battle dryness, and help with brittleness, breakage, and split ends? Do they support your styling endeavors and make your locks a little more manageable? Your leave-in does.

"A leave-in conditioner is a product used on towel-dried hair, post-wash, before you style, to deliver moisture. Leave-in conditioner's main job is to keep your hair hydrated and protected in between washes, but a good one will act as a detangler, styler, and damage shield, too—basically everything your hair needs to stay healthy in one bottle," shares Odele co-founder Lindsay Holden.

Kerry E. Yates, a trichologist and founder of Colour Collective, cosigns the product's multi-benefit label, adding that a good leave-in can also help hair that absorbs water or color product—and expels it—quickly. "Based on the type of leave-in conditioner, all hair types and textures could benefit from using leave-in conditioner when they feel they need more hair support," she notes.

But how do you find the leave-in that's right for you? That's the question...and we have the answer(s). "It’s essential to find products within your price range to build a consistent routine," says Kee Taylor, founder of Deeper Than Hair. "Some leave-in products can also protect against environmental damage like UV rays, harsh temperatures, and wind by strengthening the hair’s cuticle."

Ahead, everything you've ever wondered about leave-in conditioners, plus the best leave-in conditioners available at your local drugstore.

What to Look For in a Leave-In Conditioner

  • Ingredients:Look for natural ingredients like water, proteins (such as keratin, wheat, silk, and rice), and oils (like argan, almond, and jojoba) to provide shine and softness. Yates suggests you avoid silicones, paraffins, and mineral oils, which can create a barrier preventing moisture balance."Avoid phthalates and parabens, because they can lead to other issues," adds Taylor. "Phthalates are used in many hair care formulas but have been linked to hormonal imbalances. Parabens are often used as preservatives in hair products, but they can cause scalp irritation and weaken the hair follicle, eventually leading to hair loss."
  • Hair Type: You should always look for a product that caters to your hair type. Someone with thin, straight, or oily hair will likely have different leave-in conditioner needs than someone with thick, coily, or dry hair."Those with fine hair may find that conditioning products tend to weigh their hair down, so products like leave-in conditioners should be used sparingly, and only used throughout the mid-lengths to ends. Less is more for fine textures!" shares Taylor. "If your hair is slightly thicker, keep an eye on how your hair reacts to leave-in conditioners. Start with a dime-size amount; if that isn't enough, feel free to use more. "Thick or curly hair, on the other hand, require a lot of moisture. "These types of hair are more prone to tangling and dryness than others. Leave-in conditioners are perfect for these hair types, and you may need to use more than the recommended amount for incredibly thick or coarse textures. I recommend adding to your locks when wet for maximum absorption," she adds.
  • Other Benefits: Besides aiding in hydration, a good leave-in can offer heat protection and UV protection."A leave-in conditioner, which we also often refer to as a detangler, is most commonly used as the first product out of the shower," notes hair designer Christina Hayes. "It helps create slip along your hair shaft to reduce friction and prevent breakage while you are brushing through your wet hair, when it is at its most fragile. A leave-in conditioner with thermal defense also adds an element of protection for when you blow dry your hair!"

The Best Drugstore Leave-In Conditioners

Who Should Use a Leave-In Conditioner?

If you don't think your hair was made for a leave-in, think again. Hairstylist Katelyn Ellsworth says that everyone with locks more than two to three inches long can benefit from the product.

"The hair is on the scalp for a long time. Years, in most cases. It's hard for the hydration from the scalp to reach those long ends and leave-in conditioner can do just that," she tells Marie Claire.

Still, different hair types need to go about their conditioning process differently. The best way to do this? Finding the right amount of product! If a leave-in conditioner "made for all hair types" sounds too good to be true, I understand. But good ingredients are good ingredients! Sometimes, it just depends on how you utilize them.

"For [Odele's] Leave-in Conditioner, it comes down to the amount you use.  Use less if your hair is fine to medium and focus on the mids to ends. Use lots more if your hair is curly to coarse," shares Holden. "Our Leave-in Conditioner also has a balanced formulation—a.k.a. depending on your hair type, the amount used can work magic for every end of the spectrum of hair shape, thickness, and dryness levels. It’s formulated with amino acids that help improve hair health—better bounce, better movement, better shine."

Leave-In Conditioners vs. Regular Conditioners

Just because you have a favorite classic conditioner in your shower routine doesn't mean you don't also need a leave-in.

"Aside from the obvious fact that you don’t rinse it out, leave-in conditioner is also formulated differently from rinse-out conditioner. Rinse-out conditioners are designed to immediately restore any moisture lost from shampooing, so they’re typically made with heavier ingredients, like thick oils and creams. Left on long-term, these ingredients would weigh down the hair, which is why you rinse them out after a few minutes," shares Holden. "Leave-in conditioners, on the other hand, are formulated with lighter ingredients that coat strands without weighing them down or leaving heavy residue. That way, it can be left on your hair—and continue to nourish and protect it—until you’re ready to wash it out."

How to Apply Leave-In Conditioner

Taylor says you should apply your favorite leave-in conditioner to damp, towel-dried hair.

"When using a leave-in spray, aim for the mid to ends of the hair," she notes. "Alternatively, squeeze a dime-sized amount into your palm and rake through the mid to ends of the hair. If you have thicker or longer hair, feel free to adjust the amount! Once you have applied the product, use a wide tooth comb to disperse the product throughout your hair."

If you have a thicker or curlier texture, you can add more product to tame frizz and flyaways once your hair is dry and styled.

And if your hair is fine or oily?

"The best part about a good leave-in conditioner is it adds moisture to your hair without feeling heavy or greasy. If you have fine or oily hair and are nervous to use any products in your hair after showering, consider starting with a leave-in conditioner," adds Hayes. "Always focus the product on the mids to ends of your hair—never spray it directly on the roots."

Leave-In Conditioner Hairstyles

Lucky for hair treatment devotees, we live in a world absolutely flush with slicked-back hairstyles. Even luckier? While the look is great with a leave-in conditioner, it's not your only styling option. In fact, using a leave-in is the perfect prep step for any hairstyle.

"Leave-in conditioners truly have so many applications! They are used often in editorial and celebrity hairstyling to create sleek styles, avant-garde shapes, wet-hair looks, and more!" shares Hayes. "For day-to-day, one of my favorite looks to create with it is a slicked-back bun. Spray your leave-in conditioner around your hairline and part line, then add a smoothing cream. Use an edge brush to pull the hair back tight and smooth, then tie your bun. I find this works best on hair that hasn’t been washed in a few days."

Leave-ins also offer a great refreshment for curly girls' natural texture.

"You could also use Leave-in Conditioner between washes, to rehydrate and extend your style," adds Holden. "Simply slick a few pumps through your [dry] strands to smooth down frizz and flyaways, or scrunch it into your curls for a little extra bounce and definition."

Meet the Experts

Lindsay Holden Headshot
Lindsay Holden

Lindsay is a retail professional and sales savant, with over 20 years of experience, including eight years serving as a Senior Buyer for Target corporation. She’s led multiple cross functional teams to develop merchandising strategy, product development, promotional strategy, forecast through the complexities of diverse businesses and run P&Ls across both brick and mortar and online businesses. She’s the ultimate connecter of people, community builder, value maximizer and sales driver. Minnesota born and bred, Lindsay, her husband Blake and their three kids call Minneapolis home.

Along with Lindsay’s co-founders, Britta Chatterjee and Shannon Kearney, Odele (the brand is name is a riff on the Norwegian phrase "å dele" which means “to share”) launched to disrupt retailer shelves with a product that spoke to the need the co-founders saw on the market for an all-inclusive, gender-neutral salon-grade haircare line that was safe for all who share your shower…and disrupt retailer shelves, they did. Odele reached profitability within their first six months of business; they kicked off their official giving program in June 2020, with a $10,000 donation and a 10,000 bottle pledge to organizations fighting racial injustice and helping underserved communities (that program, called Odele Gives, has evolved so that Odele donates 5% of pretax profits to organizations that support underserved communities); they expanded from hair care down to shoulders, knees + toes with body wash in Summer 2021.

Kee Taylor's headshot.
Kee Taylor

Annagjid (Ahh-nah-key) Taylor, also known as “Kee” who got her start in her Mom and Dad's basement is now a CEO, author, Editor in Chief, salon owner, and hairstylist, not only in her own salon but in the entertainment industry as well. Traveling from coast to coast, she styles hair for her well-known celebrity clients.

Kee's hair salon ‘Deeper Than Hair’ is based in West Philadelphia and just celebrated 10 years in business. Her salon is most known for their attention to the health of the client’s hair and getting damaged hair to its strongest state. Because of her dedication to caring for the health of her client's hair and feeling like something was missing from the industry,  Kee was inspired to create an advanced hair care line, ‘Shear Genius Collection’. She also has taken initiative to build up the youth with her children's book, All Hair is Good Hair, which is available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Kerry E. Yates
Kerry E. Yates

Kerry E. Yates is a trichologist and founder of Colour Collective, an incubator for new beauty concepts, products, and trends.

Katelyn Ellsworth
Katelyn Ellsworth

Katelyn Ellsworth is founder of The Roslyn salon, a natural color and extension specialist, and San Diego's Style Icon.

Christina Hayes
Christina Hayes

Christina Hayes is a senior hair designer at Hainsworth & Company Salon in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has been in the hair industry since 2016, specializing in women’s hair extensions, coloring, cutting, and styling.

Freelance Writer

Sophia Vilensky is a freelance beauty writer at Marie Claire, where she writes about the latest and greatest skincare launches, hair colors, and Cardi B manicures. Her work can also be found at Byrdie, Bravo, and Us Weekly. You can find her on Instagram @sophiavilensky.