The Correct Order to Apply Hair Products for the Best Results

From leave-in conditioners and oils to heat protectants and more, consider this your ultimate hair care cheat sheet.

You may have the correct order of skincare products memorized, but when it comes to hair care, things get even more confusing. Sure, we all know conditioner comes after shampoo, but what about hair serums and oils? Heat protectants? Hair masks?

The truth is that our post-shower hair care products usually end up looking more like a random experiment than a routine, but being a mixologist with your styling arsenal isn't doing your hair any favors. Just like you shouldn't apply face oils before serums, the wrong order can make your products not as effective, or worse, damage your strands. "Knowing the correct order of application for your hair is just as important as your skincare routine," agrees Michelle Lee, professional hairstylist, co-owner of Salon Eva Michelle in Boston, Mass., and Sebastian Professional Top Artist. "Products penetrate differently in your hair, and the right order ensures proper use and benefits."

While every hair type is unique, there are some general rules that will allow you to get the best results. You may have heard the golden rule of layering your skincare: lightest to heaviest. When it comes to hair care, Lee says the guideline is FSF: foundation (shampoo, conditioner, masks), structure (nourishing leave-ins and protectants), and finish (styling products and texture sprays).

With that in mind, we asked Lee to share the best order for layering hair care products. Whether you use one, three, or all of these products at a time, the order of application will remain the same. (Note: This order starts with shampooing; if you want to pre-poo, feel free to apply those treatments first.)

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Shampoo and conditioner

This one might be a given, but something to keep in mind: Your styling process begins in the shower. In other words, you want to make sure you're using a shampoo and conditioner best suited for your hair type. Whether your hair type is fine and straight, thick and curly, kinky or color-treated, the right shampoo and conditioner can highlight the natural texture of your hair and give you the boost it needs to make styling a little less problematic.

Opt for something made for color-treated hair (read: no parabens and less surfactants) if you have dyed hair, hydrating if you have damaged hair, and volumizing if you have limp hair. And whatever you use, Lee recommends rotating in a clarifying shampoo at least once a week to break up the styling residue lingering on your scalp.

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Hair mask

Now is the time to whip out any rinse-off hair masks or treatments. Lee says to comb it through the hair with your fingers (avoiding the scalp) and leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes before rinsing out. Although hair masks can sub in for your regular conditioner, you can opt to double up if your hair is especially dry or damaged—just be cautious not to go overboard since excess application can weigh down your strands.

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Your styling products won't absorb well over knots and tangles, so using a detangler as soon as you get out of the shower (and before you apply anything else) is key. In addition to evening out the porosity of the hair so your wet products go on more evenly, this will also help eliminate potential breakage that can happen while styling. Just remember to keep your detangler on the middle to ends of your hair to ensure it doesn't leave your scalp looking greasy.

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Leave-in conditioner and/or hair oils (if not heat-styling)

After making sure your strands are tangle-free, it's best to kick off with a hydrating leave-in conditioner. You'll want to apply this while the hair is still wet—not only is your hair more receptive when damp (your cuticles are open), it will also protect your strands from frizzing out as it dries.

Hair oils are a bit more complicated since they can be used on wet or dry hair. If you don't plan on heat styling, this is the time to apply them since your hair will soak in the ingredients best. However, if you plan on heat-styling, hold off. Applying it now will essentially fry your strands, leaving it more susceptible to damage. Lee also notes that not all oils are the same: "Certain oils are for blow-drying and others are for after. When you're not sure, make sure to look at the directions."

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Thickening/volumizing mousse

Next up is volume, if you want it, of course. For the best results, apply a pump of volumizing mousse directly into your roots, scrunching as you go for added lift and body. Make sure to keep the product on the roots and mid-lengths of your hair, avoiding the ends.

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Heat protectant

If you plan to use any hot tools, i.e., your blow-dryer, curling iron, or flat iron, it's crucial to apply a heat protectant now to prevent heat damage. Spray the product all over your hair, then brush through with a fine-toothed comb to ensure the product is evenly distributed from root to tip. After that, you can proceed with heat-styling your hair as desired.

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Styling cream and/or hair oils (if heat-styling)

Once you finish styling your hair, you can add a styling cream and/or oil to provide shine, bring out hair texture, and eliminate unwanted frizz. A little goes a long way with oils, so just a smidge should do the trick.

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Beach or texture spray

Lastly, finish off your hair care routine with a beach or texture spray to lock in your look. Whether you're going for grit or shine, never use a hairspray on damp hair as it can cause stickiness and clumping. And since going overboard will ruin all the hard work you just did, start with a smaller amount on 100 percent dry hair and add slowly as needed.

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