The 12 Best Leave-In Conditioners for Curly Hair, According to Hair Experts and Editors

Stay hydrated, stay happy.

A guest with curly hair is seen outside Chanel, during Paris Fashion Week - Womenswear Fall Winter 2023 2024, on March 07, 2023 in Paris, France
(Image credit: Claudio Lavenia/Getty Images)

By now, we all know that caring for curly hair and natural hair takes a lot more than just shampooing and conditioning as usual. In reality, there are a variety of products for natural hair and curly hair, including hair oils (like castor oil, argan oil, and coconut oil), deep conditioners, protein treatments, and, of course, leave-in conditioners

"A leave-in conditioner is the product you use after you wash your hair," explains celebrity hairstylist Dimitris Giannetos.  "This is very similar to a normal conditioner, except you don’t have to rinse it out and it provides extra hydration. Someone can use a leave-in conditioner to keep their hair hydrated and protect it from the daily styling." 

This extra hydration and protection is particularly important for people with curly hair, which is more prone to dryness than straight hair. Plus, leave-in conditioners that have hold or curl-defining properties can go a long way in helping style curly and natural hair on a daily basis. I, for one, depend on my go-to leave-ins more so than I do any other haircare product.

Thus, scroll on for all things leave-in conditioner, from tips on how to use leave-in conditioner for curly hair to what people with curls should look for in a formula to the very best expert- and editor-approved leave-ins on the market.

How To Use a Leave-In Conditioner on Curls

First things first, Giannetos says it's important to be aware of how thin or thick your hair is, as well as how greasy or dry it is, to determine how much leave-in conditioner you should use.

"You should apply your leave-in conditioner after washing your hair and before styling, try not to use too much to avoid oily hair," he advises. It's better to start small and progressively apply more than to apply too much and have to re-wash. "You can tell when you have applied too much leave-in when you try to apply heat to the hair, and see that the texture feels stiff and slightly greasy. The hair could also smoke during blow drying at this stage, which is another reason why it is important to avoid applying too much."

In the same vein, Giannetos also says it's best to apply leave-in conditioners just a few times a week, depending on how thick or thirsty your hair is and on how often you wash your hair. More specifically, he suggests starting with applying product no more than twice a week.

When it comes to application technique, Giannetos advises, "I recommend applying it only after you wash the hair and towel dry it enough where it's damp but not too wet. Depending on how long your hair is, I recommend applying between a dime or quarter amount and brushing it through the ends of your hair, avoiding the roots."

You can also use leave-in conditioner when using the scrunch or plop methods, both of which define and style curls while they're still damp. Giannetos says that using leave-in during this styling phase "helps to define the curls and add shine."

Unfamiliar with these methods, or new to styling curly hair? Never fear—Jamila Powell, owner of curly haircare brand Naturally Drenched, has you covered. 

"I always suggest sectioning with clips and applying any product for even distribution," she starts. "Section your hair in halves or fours. Disperse the leave-in into the palm of your hands and emulsify the leave-in by rubbing your hands together. Then, evenly distribute the product on each section. After you apply the product, use a brush, comb, or your fingers to distribute the leave-in through out the hair. You can then use a microfiber towel to plop or scrunch your curls with the leave-in only, or apply your styling products on top of the leave-in, and then use your hand or a microfiber towel to scrunch or plop your hair. Let your hair air dry or use a diffuser."

Personally, I use the scrunch method, and tend to opt for a leave-in with a bit of hold so that I don't have to layer too many products.

What to Look For in a Leave-In Conditioner for Curly Hair

In many ways, what you should be looking for from a leave-in conditioner depends on your hair's porosity, your curl type, and your personal preferences and haircare goals. For example, like me, you may prefer a leave-in that defines curls and doubles as a styler, or you may want a formula that simply hydrates and detangles your curls. 

"If you have fine hair, use a spray leave-in conditioner, but if you have more wavy or curly hair, use more of a creme leave-in conditioner," advises celebrity extensionist and hairstylist Priscilla Valles. Indeed, curls comprised of fine hair may be weighed down by formulas that are particularly thick, such as those incorporating rich ingredients like castor oil. On the other hand, she says, "If you have curly or natural hair you want something heavier and it can act as a serum, like an oil or a conditioner base, because that will control the frizz."

Once you've determined your hair type and goals, though, there remain a few universals to keep in mind during your leave-in conditioner shopping process.

"I recommend people avoid any leave-in conditioners that contain alcohol or dyes, because this works to create the opposite results we’re looking for," says Giannetos. "Rather than hydrating the hair, these ingredients can dry out the hair. People should lean towards leave-ins that contain glycerin, which protects the hair from the heat."

And for curl definition, he suggests "a leave-in that contains lots of natural oils." You should also consider investing in a silk or satin hair wrap to preserve your curls, prevent breakage, and maximize hydration between wash days. 

Powell, meanwhile, explains, "The best ingredients to look for in a leave-in conditioner for curly hair are ingredients with moisture balancing properties that don't overdo it and create moisture overload. Some great ingredients are aloe vera, Kalahari Melon Seed Oil, Rosemary Extract, and fruits with Alpha Hydroxy Acid."

And when it comes to what you should avoid? Powell agrees with Giannetos, and adds, "You should avoid ingredients that weigh down the hair such as heavy oils, alcohols which dry out the hair, and silicones which can sometimes lead to product build-up."

If you're already struggling with product build-up, or if you're concerned that your leave-in conditioner is going to result in this scalp-suffocating phenomenon (which can also damage your curl pattern) incorporate a clarifying shampoo into your weekly or biweekly haircare routine.

The Best Leave-In Conditioners for Curly Hair

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Meet the Experts

Priscilla Alves
Priscilla Valles

Priscilla Valles is a celebrity hairstylist and extension expert. She has worked with a number of high-profile celebrity clients, including Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, and Chrissy Teigen. She is currently based in Los Angeles. 

Dimitris Giannetos
Dimitris Giannetos

Originally hailing from Greece and enjoying a successful career there, Dimitris Giannetos has been a celebrity hairstylist in Los Angeles since 2013. He has worked with a number of haircare brands as a brand ambassador, has collaborated with photographers and magazines, and his client list has included Joey King, Megan Fox, Alessandra Ambrosio, and others.

Jamila Powell
Jamila Powell

Jamila Powell is the founder of Maggie Rose Salon, a top-rated salon for textured hair, and the founder of Naturally Drenched, a haircare brand focused on caring for curly and natural hair. In addition to being an entrepreneur and hair expert, she is also a successful attorney. Currently, she is based in Miami.

Gabrielle Ulubay
Beauty Writer

Gabrielle Ulubay is a Beauty Writer at Marie Claire. She has also written about sexual wellness, politics, culture, and fashion at Marie Claire and at publications including The New York Times, HuffPost Personal, Bustle, Alma, Muskrat Magazine, O'Bheal, and elsewhere. Her personal essay in The New York Times' Modern Love column kickstarted her professional writing career in 2018, and that piece has since been printed in the 2019 revised edition of the Modern Love book. Having studied history, international relations, and film, she has made films on politics and gender equity in addition to writing about cinema for Film Ireland, University College Cork, and on her personal blog, gabrielleulubay.medium.com. Before working with Marie Claire, Gabrielle worked in local government, higher education, and sales, and has resided in four countries and counting. She has worked extensively in the e-commerce and sales spaces since 2020, and spent two years at Drizly, where she developed an expertise in finding the best, highest quality goods and experiences money can buy.

Deeply political, she believes that skincare, haircare, and sexual wellness are central tenets to one's overall health and fights for them to be taken seriously, especially for people of color. She also loves studying makeup as a means of artistic expression, drawing on her experience as an artist in her analysis of beauty trends. She's based in New York City, where she can be found watching movies or running her art business when she isn't writing. Find her on Twitter at @GabrielleUlubay or on Instagram at @gabrielle.ulubay, or follow her art at @suburban.graffiti.art