#ThickHairTips: Reverse Conditioning

I have very thick hair and it took me years — decades, really — to learn how to manage it well. In fact, I’m still learning. In the hope that I can save some of my fellow thick-hair-havers from learning things the slow, hard way like I did, I’m sharing some of my survival tips for life with thick hair. Be sure to follow me on Instagram for more #ThickHairTips.

Nobody appreciates good water pressure in a shower like people with thick hair. Anytime I move into a new home, check into a hotel, or go to a new gym, there’s one big question mark hovering over the whole experience: Will I be able to get my hair clean?

I lived for years with buildup on my hairbrushes and styling tools. Even when my hair was clean, it would leave a gray film on a brush or flatiron. The problem was clear: I wasn’t getting my hair clean enough. But short of washing my hair in the back yard with the hose nozzle, what could I do?

Reversing the order of shampoo and conditioner suddenly got really popular a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t really a thing yet when I first tried it. The idea came to me as I thought back to one of the worst hair product purchases I can remember. When I was a junior in college, Neutrogena came out with a new line of shampoos and conditioners. I don’t remember what they were called — just that Jennifer Love Hewitt was in the commercials and the products smelled just enough like wine that I couldn’t use them if I had a hangover (in COLLEGE, so). I was living in the dorms, where our water pressure was… let’s say variable. And I could. not. get. the. conditioner. out. of. my. hair.

It was so thick and creamy that it basically adhered to my hair, and I went around for a while with dull, clean-but-not-really hair until in desperation I started using a little bit of shampoo after conditioning to get the leftover conditioner off my scalp. And then I ultimately threw it out and moved on because I couldn’t shower after I’d been drinking and also I was irritated at having to use extra product to get my hair clean.

The memory got me thinking, though, and a few years ago I started swapping the order of my hair washing routine. I’d condition and then shampoo. At first it seemed to work — or at least my hair was getting clean, so I was happy. After a while, though, I decided it wasn’t really worth the effort of conditioning just to wash out the shampoo, and I stopped using conditioner entirely.

Let’s back up a bit here and talk about the difference between shampoo and conditioner. Conditioner, intended to moisturize and treat your hair, doesn’t generally contain cleansing agents. Shampoo, which is designed to scrub the dirt, grease and leftover product out of your hair, does, often with the addition of lathering agents and surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate. So shampooing conditioner out of your hair can be kind of counter-productive (why condition if you’re just going to strip the benefits out of your hair?).

I skipped conditioner for probably a year or more, until a couple of months ago when a hairstylist at the Aveda Institute pointed out how dry my hair was looking. She could tell before she even asked me that I wasn’t conditioning. Clearly I needed to bring some moisture back into my routine — but I also needed to be able to get my hair all the way clean.

The solution has been to go back to reverse conditioning — with a twist. I bought a new shampoo and conditioner, Brite Organix Make Me Pastel Pink, which cancels out green tones and brings out the red highlights in my hair. The conditioner specifically suggests using it as a pre-treatment. So when I wash my hair, about 15 minutes before I get in the shower, I work a generous amount of conditioner through my dry hair and let it sit. Then when I shower, all I do is rinse out the conditioner and then shampoo. My hair texture has visibly improved, so I know I’m getting the benefits of the conditioner — but I’m also getting my hair nice and squeaky clean.

If You Try It

Go ahead and try this with your regular shampoo and conditioner before you run out and invest in new products — it may work just fine for you. If it doesn’t, look for a conditioner that can be used as a hair mask or is suggested for use as a pre-treatment. There are expensive brands you can try, but you might do just as well in the drugstore with something like Aussie Three-Minute Miracle.

Got thick hair questions? Send them my way!

2 thoughts

  1. Okay, I’m trying this right now. Because I happen to have some 3-minute miracle. But it seems like I had to use half the bottle to really get it worked into my hair (which is also thick, naturally curly, and below my shoulders in length–if I straighten it–left on it’s own, the curls shrink it up to above my shoulders). Do you have to use a bottle of conditioner to get it worked in all over?

    1. I do have to use a lot of conditioner to get it all worked in! But I don’t do every inch of hair. I basically grab my hair into a ponytail and work conditioner through from the base of the pony to the ends. Then I’ll run my fingers all the way through my hair a few times. The rule I generally follow when washing my hair is shampoo only your scalp, condition only your length.

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