To Condition or Not to Condition: That Is the Question

But Why?

To Condition or Not to Condition: That Is the Question

In all my years of grooming pets, I have been on a quest to find the right products or combination of products that give me the results that I desire. I’ve tried so many shampoos, conditioners and sprays, and I’ve consulted with friends in the industry to see what each of them prefers. 

In my quest, I have had some lengthy conversations with other groomers about conditioners—more specifically whether they use them or not. I see groomers post in forums on this very topic and I follow the reasons why some are for or against using conditioners. For some, avoiding conditioners is a timesaver as they feel conditioners make the coat dry more slowly, while others feel it makes the hair too heavy and limp, making it difficult to get a smooth finish. And then there are those that just simply don’t see the need…

But why is using conditioner so important to the health of a dog’s skin and coat?

To understand the benefits of using conditioners, we must first understand the anatomy of the hair itself. A hair shaft is made up of three layers; the cuticle, the cortex and the medulla. The medulla is the inner-most layer of an individual hair and this area is made up of cells that contain air cavities. The cortex is the middle layer of a hair shaft and this area is where pigment that colors the hair is found. The cuticle of the hair shaft is the outer layer and makes up approximately half of the entire hair structure.

The cuticle is made up of scales similar to the shingles of a roof, overlapping one another to create a protective barrier for the hair shaft. There are three types of cuticle scales found in canines. The first type of cuticle scales are called imbricate, which are flat and more uniformed with narrow margins. The second type of cuticle scales are called spinous, and these cuticles are petal shaped with wider margins like a flower petal. The third type of cuticles in canines are called coronal. These coronal cuticles are crown-like with varying points of less even lengths. 

The hair follicles of canines are compound, meaning they are made of a central hair surrounded by three to 15 smaller secondary hairs all exiting from one pore. And the growth of the hair is affected by a combination of hormones, nutrition and the change of seasons. The hairs are growing from the dermis, which is the thickest layer of the skin. The top layer of the skin is called the epidermis, and this area contains the sebaceous glands which are responsible for the production of oil to hydrate the skin and hair. 

A healthy hair shaft that is sufficiently moisturized and sealed has cuticles that lay flat and tight against one another like a pinecone that is still closed and hasn’t released its seeds yet. A sealed cuticle gives the hair shaft a smooth texture, holds in moisture and keeps the coat strong and in good condition.

During the grooming process, several things affect the cuticle and the way it lays along the hair shaft. The warm water, the use of products like shampoos, heat from blow-drying, and friction from brushing can all cause the cuticle to open up and allow the scales to pull away from one another like a pinecone that has released its seeds. Even the simple act of petting a dog can affect the seal of the cuticle. When a cuticle opens like this, it needs to be resealed. 

Picture this: A dog’s coat comprised of healthy hair shafts with sealed cuticles will appear smooth, shiny and tends to be more tangle-free as the hair has smooth edges that don’t “catch” on one another. When the cuticle is open and the scales stick out like spikes, this can create some big issues for the coat. First, the coat cannot retain moisture, which creates dryness. Dryness leads to a dull appearance and coat breakage with a less soft texture. 

The second big issue that occurs when a cuticle is open and the scales don’t lay flat is that the hairs that rub against one another tend to stick together, creating tangles and matting. Hair shafts with open cuticles are more difficult to maintain, harder to brush and comb, and easily become frizzy. When this happens, the coat tends to become difficult to work with and can result in a less smooth finish that doesn’t retain the plush appearance of a nicely blown-out coat with healthy cuticles. 

The third main issue that can occur from not using conditioner is that when the skin and coat are left lacking moisture, the body reacts by turning up the oil production in the skin to compensate for the lost moisture. This can result in an over production of oil, leaving the dog’s skin and coat with a greasy appearance which, in turn, traps more dirt and bacteria, lending itself to skin issues. 

So, how do conditioners work to smooth and seal the cuticle? 

To answer that, we must look at what conditioner is and which types are the most beneficial for a dog’s skin and coat. Conditioners are typically water-based products in a crème form that, when applied to the skin and coat, restore moisture and help to strengthen the hair shaft. Conditioners can be derived from natural ingredients that are known to restore moisture such as plant-based ingredients, or they can be made from silicones, oils or emollients. 

When applied, the conditioners restore the moisture to the cortex and cuticle of the hair shaft by penetrating the hair shaft, allowing the scales to lie flat and tight, again resulting in a smooth, healthy hair shaft. The hair follicle will also be moisturized, eliminating the need for overproduction of oils in the skin. In addition, the conditioner leaves a protective layer over each strand of hair, providing protection from heat, hot water, brushing and friction. 

Hair that is well maintained and adequately moisturized and sealed will also grow faster and thicker for a more healthy and luxurious coat. And obviously a healthy coat will make grooming easier and result in a better finish. 

So, to answer the question, “To condition or not condition,” it is an overwhelming “YES—you should condition!”

All hair needs moisture to remain healthy and strong. Skipping this crucial step of finishing the bath with conditioner is a disservice to man’s best friend. Experiment with a few and see which ones work best with various coat types and the water in your area, and I think you’ll see a marked difference. Happy Grooming! ✂️

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