As an avid consumer of internet content, I read a lot about the importance of self-care. They—the authorities on this sort of thing—say that I need to eat a big salad filled with colorful vegetables, embark on a long walk alone while listening to an inspirational podcast, meditate, fly a kite, take deep restorative breaths, buy some flowers for myself, write in a journal, sit under a tree.…
I get it. Self-care is essential. But I’m also confused, because for as long as I remember, my idea of self-care has revolved around one thing and one thing alone: a hair mask. To be more specific, my self-care routine has always consisted of a long, hot shower or bath and half a bottle of red wine followed by a movie selected from the list of “Mind-Bending Psychological Thrillers” Netflix generates for me, a deep-conditioning mask, and the other half of that bottle.
Sadly, I don’t get the opportunity to engage in self-care as often as I’d like, and my budget is partly to blame. Not because my Netflix subscription is too expensive to keep up (though if they keep raising the price, it’s only a matter of time), but because when I’m regularly slathering on enough deep conditioner to completely saturate my hair root to tip, I start going through those jars and bottles at an alarming rate.
And that, I realize now, is why the best cheap conditioners are not to be underestimated. In fact, they’ve got everything going for them—the right ingredients and the right results at the most righteous price. You can pile them on your head by the handful and reap the benefits of all that softness, shine, and self-care without the guilt (and self-loathing) that comes with using half a tub of Kérastase in one go.
Our editors chose their top picks for budget hair masks that get the job done and then some, and save you some cash so you can in turn spend it on your next salon-size bottle of cheap deep conditioner that pairs perfectly with a $9 cab sav and the first season of “Hannibal.” Relax and take notes, and don’t even worry about that whole kite-flying thing.
"I’ve been relying on this drugstore standby since I was a frizzy-haired tween who—in the ’90s—didn’t have access to smoothing innovations that would come later (flatirons, keratin treatments, my beloved TwinTurbo 3800). You apply it before shampooing weekly and leave it on for just one minute after running each tube under hot water. While it doesn’t cut all my frizz (still haven’t found a product that really can—suggestions welcome) it hydrates, adds tons of shine, and makes my thick hair extra smooth and easier to heat style. Pro tip: Don’t think you’re doing yourself any favors by leaving it on for more than a minute—60 seconds is all you need." (Perrie Samotin, editorial director)
Alberto VO5 Hot Oil Therapy Intense Conditioning Treatment, $3.77; at drugstore.com
"My hair is super fine and gets weighed down easily, but I can coat my hair in this one from root to tip and it rinses out clean, leaving my hair shiny and less … ugh." (Lauren Caruso, beauty director)
L'Oréal Paris Advanced Haircare Total Repair 5 Damage-Erasing Balm, $6.79; at Walgreens
"My adult(-ish) self would have dismissed this product—with its youthful packaging, squeeze-tube functionality, and egregious use of vowels to stress just how deeeeep the conditioner really is—without a second glance, which is why I'm glad it fell into the hands of a much more forgiving 13-year-old me. I've been using this treatment for more than a decade on my fine, barely wavy hair and find it just as effective, nourishing, shine-imparting, and, yes, deeeeeply conditioning now as it was when I was still flat-ironing the shit out of my wet (!!!!!!!!!!) hair every day. I'm not too sure what's in it or why it smells so much like fruity plastic, but I wouldn't change a thing." (Rachel Krause, associate beauty editor)
Aussie 3 Minute Miracle Moist Deep Treatment, $2.69; at Walmart
"I love John Frieda Full Repair Hydrate + Rescue Deep Conditioner—it does a great job without making my hair heavy and oily." (Hannah Hickok, lifestyle editor) [Ed. Note: Because the course of true hair-care love never did run smooth, this formula was discontinued. However, the brand's newer deep-conditioning option is even better—as one would hope, considering it's got the word "miracle" in the name.]
John Frieda Frizz Ease Miraculous Recovery Deep Conditioner, $6.99; at Target
"This mask is the truth. It works wonders in the detangling department and smells like a dream. But best of all, it leaves my frizz-prone kinks and curls super soft and hydrated. Thanks a million, Salma!" (Leah Faye Cooper, editorial producer)
Nuance Salma Hayek Blue Agave Curls & Waves Hair Mask, $9.99; at CVS
"I like this formula—I used to use another one of their masques on the regular, too, until I discovered this one." (Dara Stewart, copy editor)
Shea Moisture Manuka Honey & Mafura Oil Intensive Hydration Masque, $12.99; at Shea Moisture
"The directions say to leave it on for just two minutes—which is great if you’re in a hurry—but I like to slather this on before I go work out for an hour or so. It washes out easily and leaves my embarrassingly damaged ends looking polished." (Lauren Caruso, beauty director)
Pantene Pro-V 3 Minute Miracle Moisture Renewal Deep Conditioner, $3.84; at Walmart
"What can I say? This iconic orange tub has been a crowd-pleaser since probably before I was born. It has all the good ingredients one should look for in a hair mask—meadowfoam seed, sweet almond, and olive oils, strengthening panthenol, pH-balancing citric acid—and always leaves my hair feeling baby-soft and like new again. Well, maybe not quite new, but it definitely upgrades it from 'satisfactory condition' to 'gently used.'" (Rachel Krause, associate beauty editor)
Neutrogena Triple Moisture Deep Recovery Hair Mask, $5.99; at drugstore.com