What's the Difference?: Deep Conditioners, Hair Masks, and Hair Treatment

Posted on July 08 2020

What problems do you have with your hair (or scalp)? Is your hair dry all the time, even though you use a conditioner? Does it grow too slowly? When you dye it, does the color fade too quickly? Is it damaged? Before, there were few options to help with these issues, but more and more products are coming out on the market. Being spoiled for choice is good in general, but it can be hard to choose between these lovely products sometimes. Which option should you try to help with your hair problems?

How Do regular Conditioners Work?

To understand how conditioners, hair masks, and hair treatments differ, it’s important to know how they work. If you look at a strand of hair under a microscope, you can see that it’s scaly. That’s because hair is covered in flakes of dead skin, which make up a sheath of cuticles that protect the inner hair strand. The hair strand is made of a protein called keratin. Hairs grow at an average of half an inch per month from hair bulbs inside of follicles. These hair bulbs get nutrients and hormones that affect hair growth from blood vessels at the base of the hair.

Do you remember the cuticle? It looks shiny and feels soft when the flakes of dead skin are arranged closer to each other, instead of sticking out jaggedly or falling off altogether. Cationic surfactants are molecules that bind to the cuticle layer and surround it, protecting the cuticle sheath and packing the skin cells closer together. Naturally, the oil from the skin does this on its own. Conditioner is less oily (because, well, it’s not oil), and has more cationic surfactants. It also contains small amounts of acid to break off the dead skin cells that have almost fallen off already. The result is smoother, shinier, stronger hair. Unless you use too much, of course, in which case your pH becomes unbalanced, and you get greasy hair. Conditioner lowers pH, while shampoo raises it.

Technically, you’re supposed to leave the conditioner in for about 1 to 3 minutes before rinsing it out (depending on the product).

Deep Conditioner

The terms “deep conditioner,” “hair mask” and “hair treatment” are sometimes used interchangeably. Sometimes masks and treatments are meant to be a subcategory of “deep conditioner.” Sometimes, all three terms are meant to refer to different concepts. When it comes to “deep conditioners,” the label is simply branding. The main idea, though, is that something labeled “deep conditioner” is meant to condition the hair for a longer period of time than regular conditioner. “Deep conditioners” are usually left in the hair longer than regular conditioners, as well. These tend to be more water-based, contain fatty alcohols, and are primarily meant to smooth and protect hair. They are meant to be used only once a week, though the exact length of time will depend on the product and how coarse and dry your hair is. There are deep conditioners meant to be left in your hair and ones meant to be rinsed out.

Hair Masks

Hair masks are much thicker and fat-based than regular conditioners and are meant to get underneath the cuticle sheath to nourish the hair strand. Since they stay in your hair longer—sometimes overnight—there’s more time for the nutrients and lipids to get into your hair. Thus, they will have many more ingredients than regular conditioners, and thus more functions outside of conditioning. Depending on the ingredients, masks can moisturize, strengthen hair, and even repair the damage.

Hair masks are usually meant to be used once a week to once a month, depending on how dry, course, or damaged your hair is. Masks are always rinsed out and are used instead of regular conditioner.

Japanese Hair Masks

Je l’aime Amino Amazing Sleek Hair Mask

This mask has the benefits of hair treatment as well! It contains no silicone, sulfates, ethyl alcohol, or mineral oils, so those of us with sensitive skin can use it free from fear of a reaction. The amino acids in the treatment/mask help repair damage, since your hair is made of keratin, which is made of amino acids. The focus here is helping your hair lie down flat.

Je l’aime Amino Deep Repair Algae Hair Mask

From the same company and line comes the newer algae hair mask! It has the same essential ingredients as the first, such as the amino cleansing ingredients, the proprietary “Sleek Coat” for the hair cuticle, and the proprietary “Marine Essence GL,” but also has more vitamins. Algae is packed with essential fatty acids and proteins that your hair (and the rest of your body) need to repair all kinds of damage. It is meant to penetrate deep into your hair to help it protect itself.

Shu Uemura Color Lustre Hair Mask

This one’s pricey, I won’t lie, but this simple, fragrant, and effective formula has loyal patrons all over the world. This particular mask’s blend of natural oils strengthen hair and protect hair dye. Try this if you adore your hair color and don’t want to re-dye anytime soon.

Hair Treatment

Treatments target the hair strand inside the cuticles, like hair masks, but can also target the scalp and hair follicles. They’re applied after shampoo and before conditioner, ideally while the head and hair are warm. Treatments can be primarily focused on moisturization, but the goals for treatments are diverse. There are color-protecting treatments, damage repair treatments, scalp purifying treatments, scalp blood flow-stimulating treatments, and more!

Japanese Hair Treatments

Lux Super Damage Repair Intensive Repair Treatments

This treatment is an incredible de-ager for damaged hair. The high-concentrated oils and vitamins work on both protecting and moisturizing the hair strand and stimulating growth in the follicles.

Je L’aime Amino Amazing Sleek Treatment

This treatment combines 18 different amino acids to make sure your scalp and hair are as healthy as possible. Collagen protects from aging. Good luck, baby hair!

Saborino Treatment in Shampoo (Rich Moist)

Buying good shampoo, good conditioner, good treatment, and good hair masks is going to get expensive. Or is it? Saborino is coming in clutch with their 5-in-1 shampoo! (It also helps your hair dry fast, in addition to the properties mentioned above). Cosme Hunt has three varieties to choose from, but if you have problems with dry hair and want lustrous, perpetually-moisturized hair, you might want to give this variety a try.


Lauren Goff

Lauren is a writer who spent two years teaching English in Japan and is curious about skincare products. Though she lives in America now, she is still in love with Tohoku. Her short stories and essays can be found in The Vortex Magazine of Literature and Art and Cirsova.

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