On Conditioner

During the last few days that I have been spending at hotels, I have come to appreciate that conditioner is an essential toiletry. I didn’t always feel that way, and I suspect many men don’t quite appreciate conditioner in the way that I now do, but that most women perhaps do.

From a young age, the need for shampoo was obvious. My hair would get greasy and gross, and the shampoo would make it clean. But I never felt that way about conditioner. Conditioner seemed unnecessary. If it was in a separate bottle, I never bothered to use it. It was extra work and I couldn’t understand its purpose.

Eventually 2-in-1 shampoo conditioner combinations appeared in my household, and I did use those. I had no conviction around the need for conditioner, but I figured if it wasn’t any extra work, why not “condition” my hair? Not that I really knew what it meant to condition hair, I suppose I thought it would make it softer and maybe protect it somehow, but my natural hair was already very soft and my hair grew so fast it hardly seemed protecting. I understood this in theory, but in practice, I couldn’t really tell the difference between the 2-in-1 and regular old shampoo. That has now changed.

Today my hair is longer than it has ever been. My hair got nearly as long when I was in high school, but my standards for grooming weren’t particular high back then. I’m not sure if I ever even brushed my hair. If my hair were still short, I probably wouldn’t understand the value of conditioner. But today, without an iota of doubt, it became clear why conditioner is a staple and essential toiletry.

With my long hair, which is a bit wavy, hair starts to get tangled at the ends. Aggressive brushing just rips the hair out, which becomes bad if that happens a lot. It’s taken nearly two years for my hair to get this long. When I rip a hair out and a new one needs to grow, it’ll be a very long time before it catches up to the point where I cut it. My savior for my tangled mess of air, which is exacerbated by shampooing, which removes the oils that lubricates the hairs amongst each other, is conditioner. Conditioner is a gooey wonderful moisturizing lotion for my hair.

The way that I am able to shampoo without subsequently destroying my beautiful locks is conditioner. It turns out conditioner is not some weird afterthought unnecessary toiletry capitalism has foisted upon on us for sheer profit’s sake, like hallmark holidays. It is actually essential. Once shampoo dries out hair, making it vulnerable to breaks and damage and tangles, conditioner saves the day by restoring the hair to its lushness. If I use a LOT of conditioner and massage it thoroughly into my hair, I can then brush my hair, gently, losing very few hairs in the process. Conditioner is as essential to brushing as a shaving gel or cream is to shaving. This came to a literal head today when I realized my hotel had forgotten to give me a bottle of conditioner.

I actually panicked. I’m over 30 and can sense my hair is thinning a bit. When I’m rough with my hair and don’t treat it well, my scalp actually hurts. A clump of long hair getting caught or grabbed can apply quite a lot of force at the base of the hairs. The last thing I want is to rip out so much hair in brushing that my hair looks silly and I’m forced to cut it short. Without conditioner, this became a real risk. I had already shampooed my hair at the time I made this realization, so there was no turning back. I had to improvise.

I tried to gently pass my fingers through my hair to separate out strands, using my fingers like the widest tooth comb imaginable, and it was a total disaster. I was immediately ripping hairs out no matter how gently I caressed my digits though my locks. It literally hurt. I was desperate so I grabbed a bottle of body lotion and dumped into my hair, massaging it through. It helped a little but washed out more completely than conditioner would have. I didn’t find a perfect solution. Eventually I adopted a damage minimization framework which entailed not brushing at all and gently wrapping my hair under a hat so that it’s out of my face but also out of the reach of my prying hands. My hair looks totally silly today, but at least I’m not ripping it out of my head. Nothing makes the value of a thing more clear than the fallout from when it’s missing. After today, I’ll never forget why we have conditioner.

I would guess that most women, probably raised at least at some point in their life with long hair, have long know this. It’s a bit funny what we sometimes don’t understand due to our gender, upbringing, and cultural norms. I’d bet that most women have long understood why conditioner is essential while many men, like my former self, questioned it. And indeed, it may be that conditioner isn’t essential for everyone. It’s certainly not if you’re bald or close to it. But this is now one less mystery in life for me.

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