The nev­er-end­ing quest for per­fect­ly mois­tur­ized hair begins in the hair prod­uct aisle or, if you’re a mixol­o­gist, your kitchen. I’m not much into mix­ing home­made con­di­tion­ers (most­ly out of lazi­ness) plus I believe a sweet smelling con­coc­tion in the beau­ty sup­ply store can do the trick for my tight­ly coiled, prone-to-dry­ness hair. I’m guess­ing most women also seek out the ready-made pack­aged con­di­tion­ers, which is why hair com­pa­nies mar­ket a gazil­lion vari­a­tions of con­di­tion­ers for a vari­ety of hair types. One dis­tinc­tion that can be a bit dif­fi­cult to under­stand is the dif­fer­ence between a hair “mask” and “deep con­di­tion­er”. Often, the claims of the prod­ucts are quite sim­i­lar; both tend to be rather thick in con­sis­ten­cy and more expen­sive than the aver­age con­di­tion­er. So, how do you deter­mine if a deep con­di­tion­er or mask is right for you? Here are a few tips:

Slip vs. Strength

I find that some prod­ucts mar­ket­ed as deep con­di­tion­ers are mere­ly glo­ri­fied reg­u­lar conditioners…just in a small­er con­tain­er. This sounds like a cyn­i­cal cri­tique but there are some ben­e­fits to such prod­ucts. Take for exam­ple Loreal’s Dam­age Eras­ing Balm (“balm” has increas­ing­ly become an en vogue term to use for con­di­tion­ers). I real­ly like this prod­uct and have pur­chased it mul­ti­ple times, even though I know that it is only slighter thick­er than my reg­u­lar con­di­tion­er. Why? Well, the key dif­fer­ence is that it pro­vides more slip, which makes it eas­i­er to detan­gle my hair before wash­ing. How­ev­er, the claims about repair­ing dam­age or mak­ing hair manageable…well I’ve yet to see any notice­able changes in my hair. This isn’t to say that those claims can­not be met for women with dif­fer­ent hair types but for me, my hair gen­er­al­ly feels no dif­fer­ent after using those prod­ucts.

Like many things in life, all deep con­di­tion­ers are not cre­at­ed equal. I find that con­di­tion­ers with all nat­ur­al prod­ucts, aloe vera being high on the list, can help to notice­ably soft­en and con­di­tion my hair IF I leave it on my hair for 5 or more hours. I typ­i­cal­ly only do this if I am plan­ning to use heat or wear a long term pro­tec­tive style. That said, my hair, while feel­ing soft­er and more mois­tur­ized isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly any stronger, which is often a promise made by deep con­di­tion­ing prod­ucts.

So, what’s a hair mask? 

To be quite hon­est, a hair mask may be no dif­fer­ent from a deep con­di­tion­er depend­ing on the prod­uct. The way that I dis­tin­guish a hair mask from a deep con­di­tion­er is by the pur­pose of the prod­uct. A prod­uct that tru­ly strength­ens my hair, a pro­tein based prod­uct for exam­ple, is often what I have in mind when I inten­tion­al­ly seek out prod­ucts labeled as masks. For exam­ple, Motion’s Crit­i­cal Pro­tec­tion and Repair con­di­tion­er, strength­ens my hair but doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly make it any soft­er. Inci­den­tal­ly, this prod­uct which I used way back when I still had relaxed hair isn’t mar­ket­ed as a hair mask (the term wasn’t pop­u­lar then) but it can dimin­ish break­age, (which it did for me) with­out some of the poten­tial harsh effects of intense hair restruc­tur­iz­ers (for exam­ple Aphogee’s two step pro­tein treat­ment or nat­ur­al prod­ucts like hen­na). This dis­tinc­tion between deep con­di­tion­ers and hair masks is real­ly a mat­ter of split­ting hairs, so don’t feel that either label jus­ti­fies a sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent markup in price.

It’s impor­tant to approach hair prod­ucts with a crit­i­cal eye. While we may want them to work mir­a­cles, they sel­dom do. Your hair’s lev­el of mois­ture will more than like­ly be more great­ly impact­ed by your dai­ly rou­tine and your mois­tur­iz­ing prod­ucts than hair masks or deep con­di­tion­ers. Now, if you find a “holy grail” deep con­di­tion­er or hair mask, by all means use it and share it with your friends!

Have you found a deep con­di­tion­er or hair mask that you think sur­pass­es all oth­er con­di­tion­ing prod­ucts? If so, please share!


Island girl raised in the most roy­al of NYC’s bor­oughs. Proud nerd, social sci­en­tist, edu­ca­tor and recov­er­ing awk­ward black girl. When not lis­ten­ing to NPR, try­ing to grow spir­i­tu­al­ly, or detan­gling my fro, I’m search­ing for the best shrimp and grits in the Queen City.

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6 Comments on "Deep Conditioner vs. Hair Mask: What’s the Difference?"

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I love Shea Moisture’s Raw Shea But­ter Hair Masque. It makes my hair so soft and mois­tur­ized.


I LOVE DevaCurl’s Heav­en In Hair! Amaz­ing slip, but I hate run­ning out, so expen­sive!

I think of any prod­uct that’s intend­ed to be left on longer than 5 min­utes to be a deep con­di­tion­ing mask. I think they’re all worth try­ing as long as they don’t have min­er­al oil or alco­hol. Avoid­ing those ingre­di­ents will keep the qual­i­ty pret­ty high on it’s own. I’ve used every­thing from Silk Ele­ments (which I still love) to Curl Junkie. My hair also loves aloe. You can buy aloe juice in the gro­cery store and put it direct­ly on your hair. It’s not good for curl def­i­n­i­tion but it makes your hair insane­ly soft. I like it over… Read more »
Darla Jones

My favorite deep con­di­tion­er is by Dr. Mir­a­cle. My Gosh it is the bomb! It leaves my hair silky as ever!

Kisha Jones

Pro­fec­tiv deep con­di­ton­er, Neu­tro­ge­na triple mois­ture deep recov­ery hair mask, Lekair cholestoral


Hair masques, deep con­di­tion­er, treat­ments- what­ev­er they may be I live for them every week~!