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What the Hell Is a Pre-Shampoo Treatment — and Do You Need One?

Turning on the water may no longer be Step One in your shower routine.
She of the perfect hair, Lily Aldridge. Photo: Michael Stewart/Getty Images

She of the perfect hair, Lily Aldridge. Photo: Michael Stewart/Getty Images

Over the past year or so, there's been a boom in pre-shampoo treatments, masks and oils meant to condition and prep hair before you wash. The idea here is that by addressing your locks' needs before you suds up — by, say, removing build-up or filling in porous areas with moisturizing ingredients — you can help your shampoo to do its job better while preventing it from stripping your strands in the process.

There are a handful of OGs here, including Alberto VO5 Hot Oil (which debuted in the '60s), Philip Kingsley's Elasticizer (which has been around since 1974) and Huile de Leonor Greyl (originally called Huile de Palm in 1968). But the offerings have grown exponentially with brands like Living Proof and Kérastase entering the space. So why are we seeing a surge decades after they first appeared on shelves?

"The new resurgence has brought about for the need of a more intense hair health," says hairstylist Michael Dueñas. That's because we're all doing so much more to our hair. Between keratin treatments, a slew of new styling product options and all of the hair color trends to play around with, we could all use a little extra TLC. Or, as Catherine Deceglie, director of product development for Alterna Haircare puts it: "People want to take care of their expensive dye jobs."

So what exactly do these treatments do? "Pre-shampoos are excellent at enveloping the hair strands so you don't lose the 'good oils' you need to keep your hair moisturized, strong and flexible that can be stripped in the shampooing process," explains Decegile. "They also repel minerals present in water, which helps defend against build-up." Another point in their favor, according to hairstylist Kylee Heath: they aren't as heavy as post-shampoo masks, so they're easier to use without shellacking your hair to your skull.

When it comes to who should use them, the answer seems to be pretty much everyone. All of the experts agreed they're great if your hair is fine, coarse, brittle, color-treated, chemically damaged or regularly heat-styled. In other words: women with hair. That's because there are so many formulas available now, there's a pre-poo solution to every and any hair problem.

Once you've picked your poison (with the help of my breakdown below), it's time to get down to business. Many of the options advise to work in five to 10 minutes before a shampoo, but others ask you to make it an all-night ordeal, which is Heath's preferred application method. Before bed, she works one through her dry strands and braids her hair, then washes as usual the next day. If you aren't great at planning ahead, no worries. She also confesses, "Sometimes I apply a deep-conditioning treatment to my ends and just leave on for a minute [before I shower] when I need a quick and easy boost."

As for frequency, you don't have to go crazy here. Unless you have extremely dry, coarse hair, Deceglie recommends using a pre-shampoo treatment about once a week. If your hair can handle it and you want to, you can always add in another day — it all depends on how it changes your post-poo life.

Shop our pre-poo standouts below, with a handy guide to help decide which option is right for you.

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Best for Fighting Frizz: Huile de Leonor Greyl, $60, available at Net-a-PorterThis ultra-hydrating cult-favorite oil got an update last year, thanks to the additions of copra oil from cold-pressed coconut kernels and mongongo oil from the nuts of an African tree to provide even more silkifying effects. A little bit goes a long way — if your hair is long, start with just a capful. Then smear any extra on your legs, shoulders, elbows... wherever.

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Best for Hiding Damage: Philip Kinglsey Geranium & Neroli Elasticizer Pre-shampoo Treatment, $51, available at Philip KingsleyThe original Elasticizer was formulated for Audrey Hepburn, whose hair was in need of help due to constant color treatments. Last year, the brand released this updated version with geranium, neroli, lavender and rose oils to up its softening game. As for the consistency, think "expensive nighttime face moisturizer."


Best for Blasting Away Product Build-Up: Kérastase Chronologiste Gommage Exfoliating Pre-Shampoo Scalp Treatment, $42, available at KerastaseThis gel-based scrub contains fine particles that stimulate and exfoliate the scalp. Any leftover styling product that's accumulated there will be gone, leaving your hair feeling soft, weightless and hydrated. And the scrubbing bits are sparkly, so you feel like a pretty, pretty princess in the process.

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Best for Fine and/or Aging Hair: Living Proof Timeless Pre-Shampoo Treatment, $26, available at UltaPacked with amino acids and ceramide-like lipids, this lotion helps to maintain hair density by reducing breakage — by up to 85 percent after one use, the company claims. And it's super-light, so you can really pile it on without worrying about getting weighed down.

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Best for Oily Scalps: Dessange Purifying Clay Balancing Pre-Shampoo Mask, $11.99, available at TargetThis clay mask removes excess sebum on your scalp to beat Greasy Summer Head. It's a tad goopy, which means spreading it around on your roots with the included brush takes a little finessing. So give it a couple of tries before you judge the results.

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Best for Color-treated Hair: Christophe Robin Moisturizing Hair Oil with Lavender, $47, available at SephoraWhen left on one hour to overnight, this serum, a 97.7 percent natural mix of lavender, wheat germ and palm oils, restores the hair's natural lipid film. It was specifically created not to alter dye pigments, so no worries about brassiness here. In fact, it will actually help your locks hold on to color longer, thanks to its rich protective emollients.

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Best for Coarse Hair: Alterna Haircare Moisture Intense Caviar Oil Crème Pre-Shampoo Treatment, $30, available at SephoraThe big headliner here is Abyssinian oil, picked because it has a very small molecular structure, therefore it creates a weightless barrier around the hair that seals in hydration. If you find your hair particularly dry and unruly, it's pretty much a game-changer.