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What Is Co-Washing for Curly Hair?

Some hair care practices for natural hair are known as staple parts of a hair care routine — co-washing is one of them.
17 Mar 2023
Some hair care practices for natural hair are known as staple parts of a hair care routine — co-washing is one of them. If you have curly hair and don’t want to dry out your strands, chances are you were probably co-washing your hair long before there was even a proper name for it.

The propensity to reach for conditioner instead of shampoo makes sense for anyone trying to stave off hair thirst, and like so many of your fellow curly beauties, you’re most likely familiar with showers filled with empty hair conditioner bottles and barely touched containers of shampoo.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t need both — or at least a product that can do it all. Before banishing all of your shampoo to a landfill, get to know all of the information you need to know about using a co-wash.

What Is Co-Wash?

Co-wash can refer to both a method of washing your hair, as well as the product that you use to do so. The “co” in the name is short for conditioner, so when you co-wash your hair, you’re doing it with a hair conditioner.

When the term first became popular, lots of curlies were playing mixologist by blending just a tiny bit of moisturizing shampoo with their conditioner, or skipping shampoo altogether to clean hair without stripping it of the necessary oils and moisture it needs. Since then, specific cleansing conditioners have been developed so they can hydrate and get hair clean at the same time — something regular conditioners won’t do.

These cleansing conditioners or co-wash products are moisturizers with a mild or small amount of a cleansing agent added in. They’re meant to be rinsed out, and there’s no need for a traditional in-shower hair conditioner or a deep conditioning hair treatment after, but you can apply a leave-in conditioner, hair oil, or hair serum after co-washing and before styling.

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Why You Should Co-Wash

Not to transport you back to high school biology, but let’s dive into the science of how hair works for a moment. To understand why you should co-wash, it’s helpful to dissect why you need to do it in the first place.

More often than not curly hair tends to be the driest of all textures. It’s an effect that results from the actual shape of each coil. Sebum and natural oils that come from the scalp serve a purpose by working their way down the hair shaft to help keep hair hydrated. Because each strand of curly hair coils up from root to tip, it makes it tricky for oils to work their way down the hair shaft like they would on a straight strand. This can also cause those with curls to have oily roots while the rest of their hair is constantly dry.

When you wash your hair, you want to use a product that’s going to clear away any excess sebum, oil, and scalp flaking without drying out the rest of your already dry curls. Shampoo is made with detergents that are designed to break down those oils that can clog hair follicles and gunk from product buildup. While this is good, shampoos with sulfates can also wash away some of the natural oils that you want to keep.

This is where co-wash comes in — it’s a way of cleansing hair to get rid of the unnecessary stuff while replenishing your curls with the moisture that they need to look and feel healthy.

The Benefits of Co-Washing

There are several benefits of co-washing that will make your curls bouncier and more hydrated.

1. Co-Wash is Gentle for Dry Hair

Co-washing provides gentle cleansing for hair, especially if your strands tend to be dry.

2. Co-Washing Hydrates the Scalp Too

Some shampoos can also be too harsh on the scalp and lead to dryness and flaking, so when you co-wash and scrub your scalp with conditioner, you’ll still get a clean scalp but it’ll be cleansed and hydrated in one step.

3. Co-Wash is Non-Stripping

Co-washing won’t strip your hair of its natural oils, which will leave your hair stronger and with less breakage.

Co-Wash vs. Shampoo: Is Co-Washing Better Than Shampoo?

Shampoo certainly has its place, but for curly hair that requires lots of moisture, co-wash can be a better fit. This doesn’t mean that you should dump shampoo entirely, but the one you choose is key. Sulfate-free shampoo is the best option for curls as it breaks down excess oil in a much milder way than its sulfate-filled counterparts. While it’s important to deep clean your curls every few weeks or once a month, curls will thrive better with co-wash for those in between cleanses.

What's the Difference Between Co-Wash and Conditioner?

While they may seem similar, there are some very key differences between a co-washing product and conditioner. A co-wash is a product that’s specifically designed to both cleanse and condition the hair (at the same time), while a nourishing conditioner like the Born To Repair Nourishing Conditioner With Shea Butter is meant to hydrate, repair and help with detangling.

While many people first started co-washing with conditioners, you shouldn’t make a habit of it. Co-washing with a regular conditioner won’t properly cleanse your hair, and you’ll be left with oil, dirt, and product buildup on your strands and scalp. Instead, look on the product label to double check that your co-wash product is labeled as a cleansing conditioner.

What Is the Best Co-Wash Conditioner for Natural Hair?

Much like other products for curly hair, there are different co-washes for different curl types, but the difference mostly lies in the ingredients. Some have heavier oils that benefit really dry or curlier textures like 4C hair, and others serve as more of a lightweight hydrator for fine and 2A hair.

No matter what your curl pattern, the best cleansing hair conditioner will have ingredients that will both add and seal in moisture and that can be gently broken down when you wash. You want ingredients that will attract and absorb moisture (these are called humectants) like honey, glycerin, and panthenol, in addition to emollients like shea butter, vitamin E, and marula oil, which infuse each strand with moisture, seal it in, and smooth the cuticle to reduce frizz.

Looking for a co-wash conditioner for different hair types? The best cleansing conditioner in our books is the Hair Milk Cleansing Conditioner. Formulated with agave nectar, shea butter, pro-vitamin B5, and biotin, this pick works on curls, coils, kinks, and waves, so different hair textures can give it a try. You can expect the co-wash to rinse away impurities while at the same time deeply moisturizing and detangling hair.

How to Co-Wash Step-by-Step

Now that you’ve learned everything you need to know about co-wash, it’s time to grab your cleansing conditioner and get to work. The mechanics of co-washing are simple, but there are a few details that will ensure that you get the best result and ultimately refresh your curls without disrupting them. Here are the co-washing steps you need to follow:

Step 1. Rinse first, don’t jump straight to coating your hair.

A thorough rinse before applying any product will help remove most of the buildup on your curls and make the job of your cleansing conditioner that much easier.

Step 2. Use the right amount of your co-wash.

Because so many co-washes are moisture-rich, you want to be sure that you don’t overdo it with the amount of product you use. One or two golf ball-sized portions should be sufficient for most curly heads of hair (you can use less if you have shorter hair).

Step 3. Apply the co-wash evenly.

To gauge whether or not you have the right amount, take note of how thoroughly your hair is coated. You want to have enough product applied to both work it in with your fingers and create enough slip so you can detangle with your fingers.

Step 4. Work the co-wash into your roots.

The biggest difference between a shampoo and a co-wash is how it clears away dirt and oil. Shampoo utilizes chemicals to create this action, while a co-wash cleansing requires a bit more work on your part. Of course, it's a fair trade-off for keeping your hair healthy. When you’re using a product that isn’t full of detergents that are designed to dissolve grease and grime, you need a mechanical action to do it.

Use your fingers to massage both your scalp and hair. Sandwich your hair between your palms and rub them together, moving from the roots to tips. It’s easier to work in sections to make sure that you’re getting a thorough cleaning. This step should take about three to five minutes — don’t rush it, as you want to leave the co-wash on for long enough that it really works, much like you should let regular hair conditioner sit on your strands for a bit.

Step 5. Rinse and repeat.

After you work the product through your ends, go back in and gently detangle your hair with your fingers before rinsing it out. You can also do the detangling step as you rinse since a bit of water may help loosen any knots that have formed. Wash the conditioner out of hair thoroughly. From here, you can call it a day, or depending on the product you’re using, repeat the process a second time.

How Often Should You Co-Wash?

How often you co-wash really depends a lot on your styling habits. If you have an oily scalp or use products that make your roots greasy, you may find that weekly co-washes work well for you. If you typically only wash your hair every few weeks, consider co-washing every other time and using a shampoo without sulfates on your other wash days to really clear away product buildup.

If you don’t use a ton of styling products, then you can most likely cut your co-washing down to around twice a month. You may still need the occasional clarifying shampoo, but it won’t be very frequent — probably around once a month. When you do need a traditional cleansing, make sure you’re doing it safely.

Next up: How to Wash Curly Hair (and How Often to Do It)

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