Banish dryness and frizz for moisture-rich and beautifully bouncy curls with the best leave-in conditioners for curly hair
After years of poker-straight locks, curls are having something of a fashion moment – which is a blessing for those of us with a head full of natural coils. Properly cared for, curls are beautifully shaped and springy; but if your hair is naturally curly, you’ll already know that ringlets require a little extra care to look and feel their best.
Owing to their shape, curls can tend to have a more ruffled outer cuticle than straight hair, which means such hair is more prone to dryness, tangling and frizz. That’s where a good leave-in conditioner can be a godsend, locking in moisture and continually hydrating hair throughout the day so that it stays soft, shiny and tangle-free with plenty of natural bounce.
We’ve reviewed the best leave-in conditioners specifically designed for curly hair, with a range of budgets in mind. First read our guide to choosing the right leave-in conditioner for your texture and curl type, then scroll down for our favourite leave-in conditioners to bring beautiful moisture and shine to your curly hair.
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How to choose the best leave-in conditioner for your curls
What is a leave-in conditioner?
As the name suggests, leave-in conditioners (also known as no-rinse conditioners) are designed to be applied to hair after washing, but without rinsing out. A leave-in conditioner is formulated to be light and non-sticky. Using a traditional rinse-out conditioner in the hair in this way may result in heavy, limp and clumpy or crispy hair, while a leave-in conditioner will leave hair feeling soft and flowing.
Leave-in conditioners are fantastic for dry and damaged or frizz-prone hair. They continue moisturising the hair after washing, protecting it from damage, and help to define the curl pattern and keep hair tangle-free. They’re also very good for hair that’s colour- or heat-treated.
How do I use leave-in conditioner?
Leave-in conditioner is applied after shampooing, usually to towel-dried hair. It can be used in place of your usual rinse-out conditioner or, if your hair is very dry and in need of a moisture boost, after rinsing out a conditioning treatment.
After washing and gently towel-drying or plopping the hair, apply a small amount of leave-in conditioner, focusing on the dryer lengths of the hair and the ends. Brush through gently with a wide-toothed comb to distribute the product, then simply scrunch and leave to air-dry.
Natural curls prefer not to be washed daily, so it’s best to apply your leave-in conditioner every few days on wash day. If hair feels dry or becomes tangled between washes, top up with a little leave-in conditioner or curl cream between washes; if your hair feels limp or heavy, reduce the quantity of conditioner that you use after washing.
What ingredients should I look for?
Leave-in conditioners enriched with natural oils will help introduce moisture back into hair and spring into your curls. Coconut, avocado and black castor oils are good ingredients to look for, adding softness and shine to dry hair and keeping moisture inside the hair shaft, as are cocoa and shea butters.
Ingredients that help seal the cuticle will reduce frizziness and give curly hair a smoother, glossier look. Vitamins E and B5 (panthenol) are known for their smoothing and healing effects, and hydrating ingredients such as argan oil and honey will also help to reduce frizz.
Look for a formulation that suits your texture and your lifestyle – a heavy conditioner will penetrate thick curls, but will be far less suitable for finer hair, weighing curls down. Our recommendations below include leave-in conditioners suitable for a range of curly hair types and textures.
What else can I do to look after curly hair?
Avoid rough towelling after washing curly hair. It’s best to dry by “plopping”, or wrapping the hair in a towel without rubbing. Curly hair prefers to air-dry naturally, but if you want to blow-dry in a more structured style (or are in a hurry to get your locks dry before work), then look for a curl-friendly hair dryer with cooler heat settings and ionic technology to preserve as much moisture in the hair as possible. Add soft definition and even more moisture with a curl cream.
It’s worth investing in a good repairing hair treatment for extra care once a week (or more frequently, if your hair is suffering). Hot oil, treatment masques and overnight leave-in products will all help to soften and nourish curly hair, and make for a lovely Sunday night bathroom ritual, too. Comb conditioners and treatment products through your hair with a wide-toothed detangling comb that won’t snag or break your delicate curls.
How we test leave-in hair conditioner
At Expert Reviews, we know that the best way to test a product is to use it ourselves. We test all the leave-in conditioners we review by them as directed; we note the effects of the product on hair softness, smoothness and shine after one wash and after multiple uses.
As well as evaluating the effects of the conditioner on hair, we also take note of the recommended hair type – and, where possible, we test on that type. We assess how the product feels in use and any stickiness or greasiness after using; how much product is used in one application, and how long the effects last. We also consider a product’s scent, and its overall pleasantness.
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The best leave-in conditioners for curly hair in 2023
1. Cantu Avocado Hydrating Repair leave-in conditioner: The best leave-in conditioner for dry and damaged hair
Price when reviewed: £7 | Check price at Boots
Avocado is a great nourishing ingredient for very dry hair. This leave-in repair cream combines avocado oil with rich shea butter to repair split ends and prevent further breakage by adding moisture and elasticity to the hair, reducing brittleness. Olive oil and aloe vera also nourish the scalp, helping hair grow stronger from the root. This product is very good for thirsty, damaged hair that needs extra hydration; fine hair may find it a little heavy.
Apply a good-sized dollop to the hair after washing and scrunch in before drying or air-drying. The leave-in cream has a sweet, fruity scent and leaves hair soft and silky, without flakes or crunch.
Key details – Size: 340g
2. Bouclème Intensive moisture treatment: The best leave-in conditioner for very dry hair
Price when reviewed: £29 | Check price at Boucleme
Bouclème is the natural curl-care brand that’s had curls bouncing since 2014. This intensive moisture cream with strengthening wheat protein and deeply moisturising camelia oil can be used as a pre-wash treatment, a 30-minute deep-conditioning mask or a leave-in conditioning treatment for very dry hair. The rich cream smells lovely and leaves dry hair feeling soft, healthy and frizz-free.
Used as a leave-in conditioner, you need only a very small amount of cream – so a little goes a long way and a pot will last a few months. The formula is sulphate- and silicone-free, and leaves curls supple and softly defined. Fantastic for very dry hair in need of some urgent TLC.
Key details – Size: 250ml
3. As I Am leave-in conditioner: The best leave-in conditioner for afro-textured hair
Price when reviewed: £7.95 | Check price at Look Fantastic
Excellent for Type-4 coils, this lightweight conditioner with extracts of natural coconut and green tea is hydrating and soothing on the scalp, and helps to keep afro-textured hair soft, shiny and tangle-free. The softening formula helps keep tight coils manageable and shiny, and smoothes down the cuticle to reduce frizz and split ends.
As I Am’s leave-in conditioner is light enough to use after co-washing for very dry hair, and defines the shape without leaving the hair feeling sticky or crunchy. For additional styling power, follow with the DoubleButter Styling Cream from the same brand.
Key details – Size: 227ml
4. Crème of Nature Honey Break Up Breakage Leave-In Conditioner: The best leave-in conditioner for reducing breakage
Price when reviewed: £5.89 | Check price at Boots
Crème of Nature’s leave-in conditioner with honey and coconut oil smells delicious, and moisturises dry and brittle hair from within to improve elasticity and reduce the friction that can lead to tangles and breakage. It’s also a great product for reducing frizz, especially in humid summer weather.
The conditioner leaves hair feeling soft, supple and easy to brush, and comes in a spray bottle that makes application easy. To use, simply spray onto damp hair and comb through.
Key details – Size: 237ml
5. Shea Moisture Jamaican Black Castor Oil Strengthen & Restore: The best leave-in conditioner for heat-treated hair
Price when reviewed: £13 | Check price at Boots
If you regularly straighten or heat-style your naturally curly hair, you may find that the ends lose moisture and elasticity over time. This leave-in conditioner with black castor oil and shea butter is designed for permed, straightened, coloured and heat-treated hair, to nourish and moisturise locks and bring back bounce to your natural curl pattern.
The conditioner also contains invigorating peppermint oil to boost circulation to the scalp, delivering a pleasant tingling feel. The formula is free of drying sulphates and silicone, is ethically traded and cruelty-free. Apply a generous amount from the good-sized tub to clean, damp hair and work through for soft and beautiful curls and coils.
Key details – Size: 431ml
6. Curlsmith Multi-Tasking conditioner: The best multitasking leave-in conditioner
Price when reviewed: £24 | Check price at Look Fantastic
Curlsmith’s hardworking protein-rich conditioner can be used as a regular conditioner after washing, as a weekly deep-conditioning treatment, or as a moisturising leave-in conditioner. It’s full of nourishing and hydrating ingredients: babassu, jojoba and castor oils to smooth the cuticle; rice protein for strength; and shea butter to moisturise hair from the inside out. The rich but lightweight cream is especially good for replenishing parched or chemically damaged hair.
To use as a leave-in, simply rub a small quantity through the lengths and ends of washed and towel-dried hair. The Multi-Tasking Conditioner leaves hair feeling exceptionally soft and shiny – and the product smells absolutely gorgeous, too. For extra definition, follow with the Weightless Air Dry Cream from the same range.
Key specs – Size: 237ml