One thing about curly hair is that most times those with it know exactly what it needs, and nine times out of ten, that thing is choosing the right natural hair moisturizers for your curl type. So, that propensity to reach for conditioner instead of shampoo makes sense. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need both—or at least a product that can do it all, hence the popularity of co-washing. Before banishing all of your shampoo to a landfill, get to know the benefits of using a cleansing conditioner.
What Is Co-Wash?
Co-wash can refer to both a method of washing your hair, as well as the product that you use. 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 the 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 condition and get hair clean at the same time—something regular old conditioner won’t do.
These cleansing conditioners or co-wash products are a moisturizing conditioner 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 before styling.
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 very brief second. To understand why you should co-wash, it’s helpful to dissect why you need 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, 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 parched coils. This is where co-wash comes in. Shampoo is made with detergents that are designed to break down those oils that can clog hair follicles and any gunk from product buildup. While this is good, shampoos with sulfates can also wash some of your natural oils away at the same time, and you definitely want those. Co-wash is a way of cleaning hair to get rid of the unnecessary 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, the main one being gentle cleansing for hair that typically tends to be dry. When you follow the right co-washing steps, it also serves as a way of refreshing curls. If you’ve found that you wet your natural hair a lot more frequently when curly, you should be using a co-wash. Sure, you can just rinse and then re-style, but curls plump up and are revived with moisture. The water will do this, but rinsing hair with a bit of co-wash will help seal that moisture in while getting rid of any excess styling product or dirt that might weigh down your curls.
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 do somewhat of a deep cleaning of your curls every few weeks or even just once a month, curls will thrive better with use of a co-wash for those in between cleanses. More on how often co-washing sessions should be happening in a bit.
What Is the Best Co-Wash Conditioner?
Much like other products for curly hair, there are different co-washes for different curl types. 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 recommendation? 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
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. Choose a co-wash for your curl type. Make sure you’re using the right product for your strands! Something we love about the Hair Milk co-wash is that it works for different curl types.
Step 2. Rinse first. Don’t jump straight to coating your hair. One of our biggest co-washing tips is to rinse your hair before applying any product. A thorough rinse will help remove most of the buildup on your curls and make the job of your cleansing conditioner that much easier.
Step 3. Dole out the right amount. 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. Start to apply the co-wash. 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 roots. The biggest difference between a shampoo and a co-wash is how it cleans 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 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.
Make sure that you feel the co-wash at your roots after you apply it. Use your fingers to massage both your scalp and hair. Sandwich your hair between your palm and rub together from root 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 to 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.
Often Should You Co-Wash?
How often you co-wash really depends a lot on your styling habits. If you have an oilier 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 stylers, 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 with this guide on How to Wash Curly Hair (and How Often to Do It).