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Conditioner is a key step in every hair-care routine, but it can only do so much. Hot tools, color, UV rays, pollution, and even just the daily act of wetting your hair in the shower can contribute to dryness and damage, and every once in a while you need something more intensive. If you want to keep your hair looking and feeling its healthiest, applying a hair mask regularly will work in your favor.
"Typically hair masks include a mixture of butters, oils, strengtheners, and hair softeners," says Irinel de León, celebrity hairstylist and Ouidad brand ambassador. "Think of a hair mask as an at-home nourishing treatment for your strands, just like we can apply face masks weekly." People who have curly hair and/or rely on heat styling stand to gain the most from hair masks, but everyone can benefit from using one, says de León. She suggests applying a hair mask once or twice per month. (Related: Try These DIY Hair Masks to Treat Dry, Brittle Strands)
To grasp why hair masks are so beneficial to dry and weak hair, it helps to understand how hair health deteriorates in the first place. Each strand has an outer layer called the cuticle, which resembles a row of scales up close. The cuticle functions as a protective gatekeeper — it controls how much moisture or hair product can penetrate or escape the strand depending on how raised the "scales" are. When something such as heat or color application damages your hair, it can chip away at the cuticle, says Laura Polko, celebrity hairstylist and Nature Lab Tokyo brand ambassador. And when the cuticle becomes compromised, that allows moisture to more easily escape, often resulting in dry, frizzy hair. Styling habits aside, curly hair types are at a disadvantage when it comes to retaining moisture simply because ripples in hair can also cause tiny tears in the cuticle. This is where hair masks come in — they can help fill those cracks in the cuticle, repairing and restoring hair to a greater extent than conditioner alone, says Polko. (Related: Cardi B Shared the DIY Hair Mask She's Used to Grow Her Hair)
The internet is filled with DIY hair mask recipes that incorporate various foods for hair health, and some of them are actually worth trying. Still, rinsing out a concoction with sweet potato and honey isn't everyone's idea of a fun time. For those who want the ease of grabbing a ready-to-use mask, there are tons of options in stores and online, and many cost no more than the ingredients for a DIY hair mask anyway.
Whether you go DIY or store-bought, you have a few options as far as how to apply a hair mask. "If you need to be quick, apply in the shower so it can sit for three to five minutes while you're shaving," suggests Polko. "If you have extra time, apply the mask to dry hair, focusing on the ends or any damaged areas, and leave it on as long as you can, even as long as overnight [before rinsing it out]. If you really need an extra boost, you can put a shower cap on overtop and apply heat using your blow dryer." (Heat helps lift the cuticle, allowing products to better penetrate.)
If you suspect your hair could benefit from a regular reparative treatment, here are some of the best hair masks to try.
Olaplex No. 8 Bond Intense Moisture Mask
Olaplex needs no introduction — its reparative treatments have attracted a major fan club that includes plenty of celebrities. The brand recently added a hair mask to the mix, and it's already the bestselling hair mask at Sephora. The Olaplex No. 8 Bond Intense Moisture Mask is equipped with the same bond-repairing technology as other Olaplex treatments, and it also contains avocado oil, meadowfoam seed oil, and ceramides to lock in moisture.
Briogeo Don't Despair, Repair! Deep Conditioning Mask
Another cult favorite, Briogeo Don't Despair, Repair! is a top pick among the clean beauty crowd. Intended for all hair types from straight to coily, the hair mask moisturizes with avocado, sweet almond, and argan oils, and strengthens and conditions hair with vitamin B5 and biotin.
Ouidad Curl Recovery Melt Down Extreme Repair Mask
De León notes that a moisturizing hair mask can bring bounce, shine, manageability, and softness to curly hair, and she considers this particular Ouidad option one of the best hair masks. The formula employs a moisturizing mix of coconut, avocado, rice bran, and jojoba oils to breathe life into dry and/or damaged curls. (Related: The Best Conditioners for Curly Hair)
Garnier Fructis Plumping Treat 3-In-1 Hair Mask
If you have baby-fine hair, you should make sure to use hair masks sparingly, because if you go overboard, they can leave your hair feeling weighed down and greasy, says Polko. It can also be helpful to select a mask specifically targeted for fine hair, such as this affordable Garnier option. It's intended to be used as a mask, conditioner, or leave-in conditioning cream, to add plumpness to fine hair rather than weight.
Color Wow Money Mask Deep Hydrating & Strengthening Treatment
You might know of Color Wow thanks to the brand's Dream Coat, the popular humidity-fighting leave-in treatment known as a secret to achieving the "glass hair" look. This year, the brand teamed up with Chris Appleton, hairstylist to J. Lo and Ariana Grande, to launch a hair mask that promises "super glossy, expensive-looking hair." If that description alone doesn't sell you, a peek at the ingredients — which includes strengthening blue sea kale and protein — just might.
Bread Beauty Supply Hair Mask Creamy Deep Conditioner
This hair mask was formulated with curl types 3A through 4C in mind. (Here's more on curl type classification if you don't know where you fall.) It delivers the punch of moisture that curls tend to crave with the help of starflower oil and shea butter. (Related: How to Keep Your 4C Hair Thriving, According to Hairstylists)
Nature Lab Tokyo Perfect Repair Treatment Masque
This mask "will work to strengthen the hair at the core," since it contains keratin, says Polko. The formula also includes prickly pear oil, a lightweight oil with vitamin E, fatty acids, and amino acids — a reparative trifecta. You can apply the mask to damp or dry hair.
Sun Bum Revitalizing Hair Mask
Chances are you associate Sun Bum with sunscreen, but the brand actually makes a note-worthy hair mask. A combo of coconut oil, banana pulp, and bamboo extract not only nourishes your strands but also ensures that your hair will smell like a trip to Hawaii well after you rinse off the mask.