Hair Masks: The New Essential

Clear a permanent space on your shelves for this one.

When you’ve put your hair through its paces, you know it’s time for reinforcements. No longer considered an extra step by most vigilant hair care advocates (ourselves included), hair masks have been part of a lot of our regimens since our first forays into hair color.

Usually brought to our awareness first by salon professionals as our initial line of defense after coloring, hair masks have now evolved to host a myriad of hair issues. They’ve now become a household staple, targeting everything from dryness and damage to split ends and even curl enhancement.

Hair Masks and Hair Health

hair masks wet curly
Hair masks are integral to a wash-and-care regimen, especially for overprocessed, dry and curly hair types.

Hair masks can greatly improve the condition of one’s hair by providing strands with an intense shot of moisture and nutrients that may not be within the scope of a regular rinse-off conditioner. Depending on its claims and benefits, a mask (or “masque,” if your product likes to Franglais) is usually left to sit on the strand for a specific amount of time—usually around 10 minutes—to properly infuse its ingredients into your locks.

Heavier and more concentrated than rinse-off products, hair masks are best used as a weekly (or twice a week) supplement to a normal wash-and-care routine. They are used primarily to provide an extra dose of moisture, hydration and, in some cases, fortifying and strand-strengthening ingredients for hair that’s looking (and feeling) particularly parched. Some experts caution clients to not go for overkill if your hair doesn’t really need it however, as these potent formulations can cause build-up and leave fine hair limp when used too liberally.

Are you a more-is-more gal? Whether you’re looking for more slip, strength or shine, there’s a mask that tailors to your needs. Not all masks are created equal, and some formulas are lighter in feel than others and may lend themselves to more frequent use.

Hair Masks, Deep Conditioners and Treatments

The average consumer might just chalk things up to ordinary semantics, but is there really a difference between the three?

Short answer: no. Similar to how masks work in skincare—non-aggressive, just loads of extra TLC that can move in and out of your routine as needed—all three are mostly tailored as restorative products for hair that has special needs at the moment.

Though used interchangeably by a lot of people, there are some nuances in their formulations—as in all products, as not all shampoos are the same either—but the most obvious variance is in the feel and suggested frequency of use.

Deep conditioners

These are simple, straightforward, wet-crème products commonly marketed in tubs. They generally provide that steroid shot of silkiness to your hair that smoothens down any leftover roughness after you’ve rinsed off your everyday conditioner, and are considered harmless to overdose on; some experts even suggest daily use, for those with extremely dry or damaged hair. Those who have reasonably healthy locks and merely need a weekly product to soothe wear and tear via heat styling usually see improvements with a once-a-week deep conditioner indulgence. We like Suave Professionals Moisture Mask with Almond + Shea Butter as an at-home treat for normal to dry hair.

Hair treatments

The phrase itself has its roots in the salon industry, and was typically used as a one-shot deal to target an acute problem. To wit: A lot of hairstylists and colorists include a moisturizing hair treatment after a coloring or bleaching session. By the same token, some straightening and chemical procedures, like keratin straightening, are usually referred to as a hair treatment (and not a hair mask or deep conditioner) because of their problem-solving properties. A lot of “emergency” conditioning products, like those said to mend split ends, are positioned as treatments as well and may be marketed as liquids in twist-off tubes (like a syringe, but for your scalp!) or come in little vials, such as the godsend Nexxus New York Salon Care Emergencee Reconstructing Treatment, which resurrects our chemical-processed locks.

Hair masks/masques

True-blue hair masks are thicker and tackier in feel than a deep conditioner and may require a longer time before you can rinse them off. Unlike issue-targeted hair treatments, hair masks deal with more chronic buildup of hair damage and dryness from heat or overprocessing, and, curiously, can have ingredients that give even a deeper conditioning experience than normal deep conditioners. Usually scooped out of tubs and patted onto strands (we like Dove Nutritive Solutions Intensive Repair Deep Treatment Mask), some fans report more efficient absorption when the mask is left to set in a shower cap with some steam from a hot shower.

Some may need just one, and even more hair aficionados (us included) may have all kinds of leave-on conditioners on their shelves, as hair needs can change on a day-to-day basis. Choose which specific verbiage appeals to your hair needs at the moment, and don’t be afraid to test out different formulations respecting any allergies or reactions you may have to certain ingredients. The upside to all of this? They all wash off!

Which hair masks have you tried?