Should You Be Co-Washing Your Hair?

Co-washing has been around for while, and is finally getting the attention it deserves. Here's what you need to know before trying it yourself.
By Amber Rambharose
November 12, 2020
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Co-washing, also known as conditioner-only washing, is a hair-cleansing technique that's been used by members of the natural hair community for a loooong time as a gentle way to break down scalp build-up without stripping moisture from notoriously thirsty curly and coily textures. Simply put, "co-washing is when you use conditioner in place of a shampoo," explains Irinel De Leon, celebrity stylist and Ouidad brand ambassador. "It allows natural oils to cleanse and condition the hair and scalp since shampooing can cause dryness," she shares. But that's just the basics.

While co-washing is finally getting the recognition it deserves, it's increasing popularity doesn't mean you should dive right in; it takes some time to master. Whether or not you should be co-washing your hair depends on your hair type, texture, how frequently you heat style, color-treat, and wash your hair. There are also a wide range of ways to co-wash and finding the right product for you is highly individualized. Here, experts answer every question you have about how to co-wash your hair, starting right at the beginning.

The Benefits of Co-Washing

It might seem wild to kiss your shampoo goodbye, but co-washing can protect your hair in the long run, says Ni'Kita Wilson, a beauty chemist. "Traditional shampoos contain detergents, a kind of surfactant, that do their job of cleaning very well — meaning, they can also wash off the protective oils on the hair," she says. The good news is that conditioners also contain surfactants, but not detergents, so they offer mild cleansing and extra hydration without stripping your hair of its natural protective oils, she says.

Which hair types should try co-washing?

Co-washing can be especially great for curls and coils, says Wilson. "Very coarse hair can be much more fragile and much drier than other hair types," she explains. If you have fragile hair, whether due to its natural texture or chemical or heat damage, you might want to give co-washing a try. Co-washing can help put a stop to future breakage, since damaged hair is dry hair and benefits from the added moisture — both naturally occurring (oils from your scalp) and provided by conditioner.

However, if you deal with excessive scalp and hair oiliness, keep shampooing. Because shampoo removes oil, not regularly washing out that oil could weigh down your hair even more, leaving it flat and extra greasy. A good rule of thumb: If you regularly use dry shampoo to suck up oil from your scalp, co-washing probably won't give you shinier, bouncier hair. While people with fine, straight hair might benefit from the added moisture provided by co-washing, the oil build-up will definitely have a negative impact on overall volume for these hair types, agrees De Leon. (And if you have an oily scalp but dry hair, you might have combination hair.)

Do you need to special conditioner to co-wash?

Yes and no. If you work a wash day into your hair care routine (meaning, you still shampoo occasionally, whether that's once every few days, once a week, or once every month), then you can co-wash with your usual conditioner. However, if you're fed up with shampoo and never want detergents to touch your hair again, you're going to want something called a cleansing conditioner. Cleansing conditioners contain weak detergents that combat buildup to a lesser degree than traditional shampoos but more than your average conditioners, says Wilson. (Remember, standard conditioners contain surfactants, but not detergents.) Keep in mind that cleansing conditioners, while gentler than traditional shampoos, will strip your hair of its natural oils more than a regular conditioner will, so think of it more as Shampoo Lite, if you will, and not a conditioner replacement.

Does co-washing totally replace shampooing?

The short answer is, no, co-washing is not meant to completely replace shampooing. The long answer is a bit more complicated. If you're using a traditional conditioner to co-wash, you shouldn't throw your shampoo away, says Wilson. Build-up will happen on your scalp that no conditioner, however vigorously applied, is going to slough off. This is because the surfactants in conditioner leave some build-up behind along with your hair's natural oils. Avoid shampoo for too long and build-up will put stress on the individual strands of your hair, causing weak points and breakage, explains Wilson. (I've got about three inches of baby hairs on the back of my neck that dramatically illustrate this point.)

To avoid breakage, Wilson recommends a good old-fashioned shampoo every once in a while. How often you should shampoo depends on your hair type and texture as well as the type of conditioner you use to co-wash, since cleansing conditioners work better on buildup. If you have loose curls or waves, you might find that a once a week shampoo works best for you while tighter textures usually call for less frequent shampoos, maybe once a month or every six weeks, explains Wilson. At the end of the day, the frequency really will depend on trial and error. Listen to your scalp and shampoo infrequently, but accordingly.

The Best Conditioners for Co-Washing

The best conditioner for co-washing your hair depends entirely on what your needs are, but there are a few general rules. In terms of ingredients, De Leon recommends avoiding certain alcohols (which can be drying), silicones (which sit on top of the hair and cause buildup), and sulfates (which strip the hair of moisture). That said, she also points out that some sulfates and alcohols are actually worth seeking out when selecting a co-washing conditioner, due to their hydrating, sealing, and gentle cleansing properties. Here are the ingredients to look for or avoid in cleansing conditioners according to De Leon.

  • Alcohols to avoid: Ethanol, specially denatured (SD) alcohol, SD alcohol 40, denatured alcohol, propanol, propyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and alcohol denat.
  • Silicones to avoid: D4, D5, D6 and dimethicone.
  • Sulfates to avoid: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate/Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES)
  • Good alcohols: Lauryl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, myristyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, and behenyl alcohol.
  • Good sulfates: Behentrimonium methosulfate, cetrimonium chloride, polyquaternium 11, 57, 10, 37, and stearamidopropyl dimethylamine.

Generally speaking, when it comes to picking a co-washing conditioner based on texture, the drier your hair, the more it craves moisture and the richer the conditioner you can use. If you have curly or coily hair, De Leon recommends seeking out conditioners specifically formulated for your hair texture in order to ensure you're infusing the right moisture properties into your hair.

If you know your hair's porosity, the same rules for conditioners and hair masks also apply to cleansing and co-washing conditioners. High-porosity hair will soak up moisture while low-porosity hair won't absorb it as quickly or thoroughly meaning there's a potential for more build-up. If you have low-porosity hair or if your hair is closer to wavy than curly, you're going to want to lean more towards cleansing conditioners vs. using a regular conditioner.

Best Co-Washing Conditioner for Curly Hair: Miss Jessie's Don't Want No Suds Conditioning Co-Wash Cleanser

Credit: Miss Jessie's

This is one of the few products I use down to the absolute last drop (seriously, I've cut open the tube with kitchen scissors to get at the last of it). Miss Jessie's vegan, cruelty-free conditioning cleanser has zero sulfates, so it doesn't lather or strip any of the good stuff like moisture or natural oils from your hair. Instead, castor oil and castor seed oil add strength to strands while cetyl alcohol adds moisture and seals it in. It's worth noting that this cleansing conditioner doesn't contain any surfactants, so you'll definitely want to still work in a wash day semi-regularly to keep build-up from getting out of hand.

Best Hydrating Cleansing Conditioner: Ouidad Curl Immersion Co-Wash Cleansing Conditioner

Credit: Ulta

It's no surprise that the most moisturizing cleansing conditioner on this list is also formulated with curls in mind. After all, curls are thirsty. This cleansing conditioner is packed with essential fatty acids and moisturizing butters and oils including coconut oil, Abyssinian oil, and mafura butter. This cleansing conditioner also features sage oil to break down any build-up and soothe an itchy or irritated scalp.

Best Cleansing Conditioner for Natural Hair: Mizani True Textures Cream Cleansing Conditioner

Credit: Sephora

The oils in this cleansing conditioner are excellent hydrators for natural hair textures which, just like curls, get really thirsty. Coconut, marula, and olive oil all seal moisture into the hair cuticle while also smoothing it down, which means less frizz and more shine. It's a super rich conditioner which means it might be too heavy for fine or straight hair textures, but naturalistas rejoice: there are a ton of moisturizers in this product, as well as cetearyl alcohol for extra smoothness and shine. (More here: The Best Conditioners for Every Hair Type)

Best Lightweight Cleansing Conditioner: Amika Nice Cream Cleansing Conditioner

Credit: Amazon

If you have fine hair or damaged hair that can't handle heavy-duty oils, first off, I'm sorry. That's difficult. Second, give this cleansing conditioner a try. It features lightweight grape seed oil, rather than heavier oils like coconut or olive, to seal moisture into the hair cuticle. That adds up to more smoothness and shine and less frizz without leaving your hair weighed down or greasy. Soybean protein and oat peptide protect and strengthen hair by delivering amino acids and a protective barrier over the hair cuticle. (Related: This Shampoo for Fine Hair Makes My Locks Seriously Bouncy)

Best Cleansing Conditioner for Thick Curls and Coils: SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Co-Wash Conditioning Cleanser

Credit: Target

If your curls or coils are constantly thirsty, this is the cleansing conditioner for you. It comes highly recommended (the reviews really are worth reading) and features a unique balance of hydrating and smoothing ingredients. To start, there's a combination of strengthening and hair cuticle smoothing (aka frizz-fighting) coconut oil, silk protein, and neem oil. It also includes shea butter — a moisturizing heavy hitter — as well as cetyl and stearyl alcohols to deposit and seal in even more hydration.

Best Co-Washing Conditioner for Fine Hair: Briogeo Be Gentle, Be Kind Avocado Quinoa Co-Wash

Credit: Briogeo

If you have fine waves or curls and need the hydration of a co-wash that doesn't lay the moisture on too thickly, this co-wash is for you. It contains the majority of good alcohols and sulfates recommended by De Leon — including cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and behentrimonium methosulfate — to gently cleanse the scalp and lift up dirt and residue. Meanwhile, avocado oil and quinoa seal moisture into the hair cuticle which means softer hair with less frizz or flyaways.