Byrdie May 20, 2024



The 11 Best Leave-in Conditioners for Curly Hair That Gave Us Defined, Silky Coils


Tester-approved to smooth, soften, and sculpt waves and curls

Leave-in conditioner falls somewhere between everyday haircare and a styling product—it can help improve how hair looks and feels over time while also acting as a quick style boost, especially for the curly-haired set. "They prep the hair and nourish it prior to applying a styling product," explains Cataanda James, a cosmetologist specializing in multiracial haircare. At the same time, Jenna Spino, veteran stylist at Maxine Salon in Chicago, says the rich formulas deliver ample moisture that curly hair craves. "It can help cut down on frizz and keep hair looking and feeling healthy, protecting it from damage and restoring shine," she adds.

Whether you're rocking tight coils, soft waves, or spirals, the right leave-in will give you shiny, supple hair free from flyaways. The best part? You don't have to wash it out. We tested 47 leave-in conditioners over 378 hours, using the products in our everyday lives at least twice a week. After analyzing the tested feedback and consulting hair experts, we settled on these 11 leave-in conditioners that will truly bring back the bounce.

Best Overall
Not Your Mother's Curl Talk Leave-In Conditioner

What We Like

  • Softens and moisturizes hair
  • Reduces frizz and static
  • Protects against heat

What We Don't Like

  • Liquid consistency might be too light for some hair types

Size: 6 oz | Scent: Citrus & jasmine | Cruelty-Free: Yes

We can’t get enough of Curl Talk. It’s one of those products that improves the styling process from start to finish. Spritz it on wet hair and the superfood oil blend eases tangles while rice extract helps give structure and definition to all curl types. As a welcome bonus, the formula doubles as a heat protectant, making it one to reach for when you want to diffuse for extra body and bounce. 

The wide nozzle made this product really easy to apply; five or six spritzes covered our tester’s medium-length hair perfectly. After leaving her hair to air dry she was amazed by how soft and shiny it was. Dry, brittle ends felt nourished and strands just seemed healthier in general. Best of all, her curls were smooth and supple and frizz was kept at bay throughout the day. 

Dawn, tester with hair type 3B: “I noticed almost immediate results, but they became even more noticeable with regular use of the spray. When I use this product, my hair FEELS softer, less brittle, and moisturized, and LOOKS healthier and more controlled, with less frizz.”

Best for Shine
Adwoa Beauty Hair Milk Leave-In Conditioner

What We Like

  • Creates impressive shine
  • A little goes a long way
  • Smooths and moisturizes

What We Don't Like

  • Product can clog up the spray-nozzle applicator

Size: 6.8 oz | Scent: Fruity | Cruelty-Free: Yes

Curly hair tends to be less shiny than straight hair, partly because the coiled shape of the strands makes it harder for shine-enhancing natural sebum to travel down the hair shaft. A good leave-in conditioner, like this one from adwoa, can help amp up the gloss. 

Made with fatty acid-rich extracts from the South African Kalahari melon plant, it imparts a hefty dose of moisture that made our tester’s hair super shiny, soft, and smooth. Throughout the trial she noticed it helped repair some of the dryness and damage caused by heat styling and her hair was much easier to manage and style. 

A little goes a long way with this product; three or four sprays did the trick. Her only complaint was that the creamy consistency of the spray clogged the nozzle if she didn’t clean it regularly. 

Kimberly, tester with hair type 3A/B: “My hair has been feeling smoother, less brittle and damaged, and healthier overall while using this leave-in conditioner! It looks a lot shinier too.”

Best for Air-Drying
As I Am Jamaican Castor Oil Leave-In Conditioner

What We Like

  • Defines curls
  • Reduces frizz and static
  • Makes hair soft and tangle-free

What We Don't Like

  • Lotion-like consistency can be hard to spread evenly

Size: 8 oz | Scent: Floral | Cruelty-Free: Yes

Air-drying your curly hair can be a leap of faith; you leave the house never knowing exactly how it will turn out. This creamy castor oil-based leave-in conditioner removes some of the guesswork by intensely moisturizing and defining each curl; our tester raved that it gave her perfect bouncy ringlets. 

The formula has a thicker, lotion-like consistency, which can take time to get used to if you normally lean towards light sprays, but our tester was able to spread it evenly with some effort. The product did weigh down her hair a little but in a way that complemented her curls, making them less frizzy and more ringleted. It also helped remove tangles and knots, so she could run her fingers through her hair and appreciate how soft and healthy the strands felt. 

Rachel, tester with hair type 3B: “My hair is much less frizzy, my curls are defined, and my hair is soft and tangle-free.”

Best Style Refresher
Aveda Nutriplenish Leave-in Conditioner

What We Like

  • Lasts up to three days
  • Smooths hair
  • Defines curls

What We Don't Like

  • Could be more hydrating

Size: 1, 6.7 oz | Scent: Floral, clean, fresh | Cruelty-Free: Yes

As any curly-haired person will tell you, curls are never quite as good on the second or third day as they were immediately post-wash. Help is at hand with this leave-in conditioner, which brings curls back to life courtesy of hydrating pomegranate oil while protecting hair against environmental damage with sand ginger, a natural UV filter. 

The formula comes out of the bottle as a fine mist—making it easy to coat every strand—and absorbs into the hair completely. After drying and styling, it made our tester’s hair feel slightly heavier but not in a greasy way—curls were defined, smooth, and frizz-free, and the effects lasted up to an astonishing three days between washes. Although she said the product could have been more hydrating, she was happy with how it made her hair sleeker for days afterward. 

Martha, tester with hair type 2B: “The product came out in such a fine mist that it would work well for someone who didn't want to disturb their hair's natural curl action. Just spray it on and crimp or place hair as you wish, then let air-dry.”

Best for Wavy Hair
Bounce Curl Leave-In Conditioner

What We Like

  • Softens and smooths hair
  • Pleasant and long-lasting scent
  • Keeps curls shiny for several days 

What We Don't Like

  • Thick consistency might not be ideal for all hair types

Size: 6 oz | Scent: Floral, fruity | Cruelty-Free: Yes

As a general rule, the curlier the hair, the more moisture it needs. Those with wavy hair or loose curls might benefit from using something a little lighter, like this medium-moisture leave-in conditioning formula from Bounce Curl, which nourishes and protects with a nourishing blend of five Eastern Mediterranean oils, including Egyptian Neroli oil, jojoba, olive, fenugreek, and argan oil. 

Our tester noticed an immediate difference the moment she scrunched the creamy formula into her wet strands. Her hair was instantly softer and more hydrated, and she appreciated that the formula didn’t weigh down her moisture-sensitive fine locks. A little product went a long way, and she was impressed with how effectively it kept her curls defined, shiny, and hydrated even two or three days after use. It smelled like a dream, too. 

Mia, tester with hair type 3B: “This leave-in was the perfect balance of moisturizing while still feeling lightweight. It definitely smoothed and detangled my hair without weighing it down.“

Best for Fine Hair
Cantu Leave-In Conditioning Repair Cream with Argan Oil

What We Like

  • Makes hair feel thicker and fuller
  • Smooths and hydrates
  • Adds shine

What We Don't Like

  • May work better as a rinse-out conditioning treatment than a leave-in

Size: 16 oz | Scent: Light | Cruelty-Free: Yes

Fine-haired friends, we feel your pain. Your delicate strands are more sensitive to damage and dehydration so they could benefit from a leave-in conditioner but they’re also more easily weighed down by products, which can make hair look even thinner. No bueno if your goal is bouncy curls. This formula from Cantu could be the product you’ve been searching for. It seriously worked wonders on our fine-haired tester’s locks.

She used this as a deep conditioning treatment rather than a leave-in, letting it sit on her hair for 20 minutes and then rinsing it out before styling. The results were instant and impressive—it smoothed and hydrated her hair without weighing it down, and most notably, it had a rave-worthy impact on the strength of her strands. She was beaming over how thick and full her usually fine hair was after using the formula consistently. 

Heather, tester with hair type 2B: “My favorite thing about the product is how thick my hair became after using this for a while. It feels healthier and much, much stronger—less brittle.”

Best Multitasker
Davines All In One Milk

What We Like

  • Reduces static
  • Increases shine
  • Leaves hair silky soft

What We Don't Like

  • Made hair greasier faster than usual
  • Could be better at defining curls

Size: 1.7, 4.6 oz | Scent: Floral, herbal | Cruelty-Free: Yes

This hydrating hair milk does it all: softens, detangles, reduces frizz, and even protects hair from heat styling thanks to the inclusion of Roucou oil, a potent antioxidant. Just four or five sprays of the milk rather than the recommended 10-15 was enough to make our tester’s hair silky without any heaviness. The formula nourished her hair, amped up the shine, and successfully eliminated frizz, but on the flip side, it made her hair greasy faster than usual.

Natalie, tester with hair type 2A/B: “The leave-in conditioner helped keep my hair feeling hydrated and nourished and it helped make it smooth and less tangled.”

Best Lightweight
Ouidad Moisture Lock Leave-In Conditioner

What We Like

  • Super lightweight formula absorbs quickly
  • Reduces breakage
  • Smoothes and hydrates

What We Don't Like

  • Could be better at tackling frizz

Size: 8.5, 33.8 oz | Scent: Light | Cruelty-Free: Yes

A lightweight formula may seem like it won’t create as defined, springy curls as a heavier one, but trust us, this one absolutely does. This “weightless” option from Ouidad absorbed into our tester’s hair quickly and didn’t leave any residue behind. The spray didn’t weigh her hair down like the cream formulas she’d tried in the past. Instead, it left her hair smooth, shiny, and bouncy. It also seemed to help with breakage and improved moisture levels, perhaps thanks to prickly pear cactus extract and pro-vitamin B5, which infuse dry strands with conditioning proteins. It didn’t address frizz as much as she’d hoped, but the mountain of other benefits outweighed that. 

Caitlin, tester with hair type 2A: “My hair was left more shiny and hydrated than it usually is. I didn't realize how much my hair grew until I compared the before and after pictures. My hair typically grows very slowly.”

Best for Coily Hair
Pattern Leave In Conditioner

What We Like

  • Creates volume and definition
  • Smooths and detangles
  • Lightweight hydrating formula

What We Don't Like

  • Could be better at controlling frizz and static

Size: 3, 9.8, 25 oz | Scent: Floral | Cruelty-Free: Yes

If you’re looking for a leave-in conditioner specifically designed for coily, type 4 hair, this option from Tracee Ellis Ross’s line PATTERN is the one. Enriched with moisturizing aloe, honey, and jojoba oil, it truly gives curl patterns definition and locks moisture into protective styles. 

The lightweight formula hydrated and nourished our tester's curls while maintaining their natural volume and bounce, leaving her hair feeling healthy and strong. After smoothing two pumps of the leave-in conditioner through her hair she noticed improved curl definition and touchable softness. It could have been better at reducing frizz and imparting shine though. 

Irianna, tester with hair type 3B: “My hair loves this leave-in since it is lightweight, which gives me great volume and definition while leaving my hair nourished and hydrated.”

Best Softening
R+Co SUN CATCHER Leave-In Conditioner

What We Like

  • Leaves hair soft and touchable
  • Helps tame frizz and static
  • Nourishes and hydrates

What We Don't Like

  • Pump applicator isn’t efficient

Size: 4.2 oz | Scent: Light | Cruelty-Free: Yes

For addictively touchable, beautifully soft hair reach for this vitamin C-boosting leave-in. It’s formulated with a blend of protective vitamin C, strengthening vegan collagen, and moisturizing hyaluronic acid to accentuate and nourish wavy or coily hair. Our tester raved about how soft it left her strands. 

Once she got used to the inefficient applicator (it took 10-14 pumps to get enough product out) and applied the formula, she noticed an instant improvement in the texture of her hair. Her strands felt soft, smooth, and tangle-free all day. It helped tame frizz, too, although she still had some static. 

Taylor, tester with hair type 3A/B: ”It was very nourishing for my curls and kept them feeling touchable and soft all day.”

Best for Frizz
Verb Curl Leave-In Conditioner

What We Like

  • Eliminated frizz
  • Hydrates and conditions
  • Doesn’t weigh down curls

What We Don't Like

  • Finding the right amount for your hair type may take experimentation

Size: 6 oz | Scent: Light | Cruelty-Free: Yes

Frizz is a common accent to curly hair, but you can mitigate it with a powerful leave-in. To get them looking perfectly sculpted and defined you’ll need a formula that removes static and smooths the hair shaft. Enter Verb Curl Leave-In Conditioner, which wowed our tester with its frizz-taming capabilities. 

Her hair “drank up” the serum-like formula, becoming bouncy and defined when it dried. It took some experimentation to find the right amount (too much and her hair became heavy; not enough and frizz abounded), but a quarter-sized amount was just right. The product made her hair feel and look healthier, but her favorite part was the drastic reduction of frizz. She used to resort to a flat iron to address the problem, but now, she no longer has to risk the heat damage. 

Sarah, tester with hair type 2B: “Normally, my super thick hair is very frizzy—I usually have a solid 'frizz halo' going on. This conditioner made my hair curlier and smoothed everything down, even in humid weather.”

What to Look for in a Leave-in Conditioner for Curly Hair

  • Hair Concern: "Leave-in conditioners are used to hydrate, strengthen hair, smooth hair, and reduce frizz," says Monaè Everett, a celebrity hairstylist. "These are the main concerns associated with curly hair." When browsing formulas, think about what you're trying to achieve. Do you want more moisture, healthy growth, fewer flyaways, or better definition? Your primary hair concern and goals can provide clues as to which product is right for your hair.
  • Oil Content: Since leave-in conditioners are meant to moisturize and condition, they often contain various plant oils, such as argan, jojoba, castor, coconut, baobab, and sunflower. Curly hair usually tolerates these ingredients well, and lubrication can help with detangling. However, if your hair is relatively thin, too much oil can weigh it down, so a lighter formula may be best.
  • Curl Definition: Leave-in conditioners formulated specifically for coily, kinky, and wavy hair often include ingredients that add definition. If your goal is to define your curls, look for products containing polypeptides, polyquaternium, and other polymers that help your hair retain its natural shape and pattern.


How often should you use leave-in conditioners for curly hair?

"Leave-in conditioner can be used every day or every wash," Spino tells Byrdie. It can be treated like any curly-hair styling product: applied to wet or towel-dried hair after showering. However, she notes, "If you're not shampooing often, using it daily can be a bit much and can build up."

When should I use leave-in conditioner on my curly hair?

Leave-in conditioner is generally applied after washing and conditioning your hair and before styling it. If you’re going to air-dry your hair, it’s recommended that you apply products just before you scrunch it. NYC stylist Halli Bivona of the John Barrett Salon at Bergdorf Goodman tells Byrdie, “Curly-haired girls should take small sections all over and twirl each curl in a different direction. You’ll look a bit like Shirley Temple, but don’t worry! When the curls fully dry, massage your scalp to loosen them.”

Do I need leave-in conditioner and curl cream for my curly hair?

Leave-in conditioner and curl cream are not considered interchangeable—they can both be used in your hair care routine. A leave-in conditioner adds moisture and slip to your hair. A curl cream is more of a styling product. Curl creams enhance the natural shape of your curls and help define them. They aren’t always designed to moisturize your hair, though some definitely add moisture while they define curls.

Why Trust Byrdie

Theresa Holland is a freelance beauty writer specializing in hair care, skincare, and makeup. She interviewed three experts for this story, including a celebrity hairstylist and a licensed cosmetologist specializing in multiracial hair. Before making her final selections, she compiled their product recommendations, reviewed insights from our testers, and referenced several peer-reviewed studies about the effectiveness of various ingredients. You can find more of Theresa's bylines on The Spruce, MyDomaine, and Verywell Health.

This article was co-written by Byrdie contributor Esme Benjamin, a freelance writer, editor, and podcaster based in Brooklyn, New York. She has fine, curly hair—a tricky-to-style combo that has required excessive product experimentation over the years. Leave-in conditioners are a critical part of her hair care routine.

Our writers consulted experts for additional insight, including:

  • Cataanda James is a beauty expert and licensed cosmetologist specializing in multiracial haircare. She is also a brand educator for The Mane Choice.
  • Jenna Spino is a stylist at Maxine Salon in Chicago, Illinois. She's seasoned in everything from bobs and blowouts to long layers and chic up-dos.
  • Monaè Everett is a celebrity hairstylist and brand ambassador for African Pride. She is also the creator of the Texture Style Awards.
  • Halli Bivona is a Manhattan-based hairstylist specializing in wedding and event styling.