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What exactly does it mean to co-wash? Why has it become so popular? And, finally, should you also be doing it?
If you’ve never heard of the term “co-washing,” you may think it sounds a bit like co-sleeping. Fortunately, it involves more alone time than that: Co-washing is a method of washing your hair.
The act of co-washing has become more and more popular with those who who have curly and coily hair.
According to the co-founding managing director of Afrocenchix, Rachael Corson, LLB Hons., MSc, co-washing is considered “a method of deep hydration, rather than a way to cleanse, as conditioners typically contain ingredients which hydrate and moisturize rather than cleanse.”
The way we choose to wash our hair may change and evolve over time, but one thing is for sure: Having clean, healthy hair is a nice feeling that has a long, long history.
“Humans have been cleansing their hair and bodies since our hunter-gatherer days,” Corson says, “with some early soaps being made of animal ashes, cedarwood, wool, and hyssop.”
Co-washing is the act of washing your hair with conditioner — and only conditioner. It’s also known as conditioner-only washing and no poo (as in no shampoo). If you have coily, mixed-textured, curly, or extremely dry hair, there’s a chance that your hair care routine could benefit from it.
It’s important to know that co-washing isn’t just about skipping your shampoo and applying conditioner as normal. It’s about using conditioner in place of your shampoo, which means on your scalp as well.
Many shampoos include sulfates, which are detergents that clean your hair thoroughly. However, sulfates can also strip natural oils and moisture from your hair. This leaves your hair drier and more prone to breakage.
If you cut down on shampoo by using a co-washing regimen, your hair may be more likely to maintain its natural moisture levels, allowing it to grow healthier.
However, there are some things to be aware of, and you may want to consider finding a healthy balance between the two.
“Many people report having softer hair once they have co-washed their hair, but the ‘benefits’ are often short-lived, with the practice leading to a host of hair and scalp issues,” says Corson.
For this reason, Corson and Afrocenchix recommend shampooing with a gentle sulfate-free shampoo every 7 to 10 days.
“If you like how your hair feels after co-washing, one option is to alternate between co-washing and shampooing to ensure that your scalp is cleansed,” she says.
According to Corson, shampooing cleanses what co-washing can miss, including:
- dead skin cells
- hair product
- atmospheric pollutants
If you’re ready to give it a try, you’ll need to find the right conditioner for your hair. The first thing to do, no matter what hair type you have, is to make sure your conditioner doesn’t contain silicones. Silicones can cause buildup that coats your hair, leading to dull and lackluster locks.
Ideally, you’ll co-wash your hair every time you would normally wash your hair. If you have an oily scalp, you may need to wash your hair daily. Otherwise, you may only need to wash your hair once a week.
Which ingredients are good to look for?
- Emollients, such as shea butter, oils, and wheat germ. Emollients help soften, smooth, and reduce frizz.
- Proteins, such as wheat, wheat germ, and soy protein. Proteins coat the hair shaft and protect it.
- Humectants, such as honey, panthenol, and vegetable glycerin. Humectants absorb water and lock in moisture.
- Moisturizers, such as amino acids and aloe vera. Moisturizers add softness and shine.
- Wet hair.
- Massage conditioner into your entire scalp, just like you would shampoo.
- Rinse out the conditioner thoroughly. Spend twice as long rinsing as you did lathering.
- Use your conditioner or leave-in conditioner as normal.
“After each treatment, you should rinse out the products to prevent possible buildup from the washing process itself,” Corson says.
For curly hair
If you have curly or coarse hair, you may want to leave the conditioner on even longer. Just make sure to spend enough time thoroughly rinsing it all out.
For 4C hair
Type 4 hair is a type of curly hair that’s considered coily or zigzagged.
Curly hair can end up being coarse, and curls can feel dry and undefined. If that’s the case, it might be time to swap your daily shampoo for a co-wash. A richer co-wash is better for highly porous hair, like color-treated, chemically processed, or ultra-dry type 4 hair.
For wavy hair
If your curls are on the finer side, try a lightweight co-wash, as it contains fewer oils to weigh down your hair.
For fine hair
It can be a bit challenging to find a good conditioner for fine hair. A lightweight formula won’t strip your hair’s natural oils.
However, a richer formula will replenish the moisture without making your hair look flat. It’s best to find a co-wash that achieves both of these goals.
Try the products below to get the best of your co-wash experience.
Afrocenchix Swirl Silicone-Free Conditioner
This natural silicone-free conditioner is designed for coily and curly hair and is enriched with aloe vera and avocado to nourish and revitalize hair. It’s 97 percent natural, contains zero parabens, and is vegan. And for the times when you need to shampoo, you can combine with their sulfate-free shampoo Swish.
Pantene Gold Series Deep Hydrating Co-Wash
Most co-washes should work well for curly hair, but this conditioner was created by scientists for curly and coily hair. Argan oil is the main ingredient. It’s gentle but potent enough to hydrate your hair thoroughly
Shea Moisture Curl Moisture Co-Wash
This co-wash not only smells nice, but it does a great job for curly hair by keeping curls tangle-free and frizziness at bay.
Live Clean Apple Cider Ultra Light Conditioner
Lush Avocado Co-Wash
If you’re still on the fence about co-washing and want to ease into it, then this bar may do the trick. It’s a hybrid of roughly four-fifths conditioner and one-fifth shampoo. Ingredients include avocado, cupuaçu butter, and olive oil.
Lush Happy Happy Joy Joy
This creamy yet light conditioner is loved by people with all hair types. The protein is sourced from almond milk. It also includes glycerin to lock in moisture, jojoba oil to make strands silky, and the natural floral-citrusy fragrance leaves your hair smelling amazing.
For many people, co-washing can transform their hair. However, some individuals, especially those with waves or ultra-fine curls, may not be able to co-wash regularly, as it can create buildup.
Corson reiterates that you should aim to wash your hair every 7 to 10 days using a mild, sulfate-free shampoo. “This includes when you have your hair in a protective style. This will ensure that there is no scalp buildup, that you remove enough sebum, and that dirt and dust particles are removed.”
When you do have scalp buildup, Corson explains that this can lead to a host of issues, including:
- Contact dermatitis. Co-washing can be irritating to the skin, as conditioners are designed to be rinsed off. Continuous contact with a substance that should be rinsed away but hasn’t been can lead to contact dermatitis.
- Products becoming less effective. Build up forms layers on the hair cuticle and blocks products from working on your hair. This means you’ll just be wasting your time and money at that point.
- Itchy scalp. An irritated scalp can become itchy and flaky. “You might mistake this for dandruff, but it is most likely a scalp issue from not properly cleansing your scalp,” Corson explains.
Co-washing can drastically change your hair in a lot of positive ways. Moving away from shampoo and turning to co-washing products could very well be the secret to softer, healthier hair for you.
Just remember to be selective about the type of conditioner you choose, as every person and every hair type will react differently. Also, don’t forget that switching to a co-wash routine doesn’t mean you have to or should give up shampooing your hair completely.
Consider testing out the co-wash method for several weeks or, even better, months. It’s normal for your hair to appear greasier or oilier for the first few weeks. It can take some time to figure out the right timing and conditioner that works best for you.
Ashley Hubbard is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, focusing on sustainability, travel, veganism, mental health, social justice, and more. Passionate about animal rights, sustainable travel, and social impact, she seeks out ethical experiences whether at home or on the road. Visit her website wild-hearted.com.