Co-wash, or conditioner washing, means to use conditioner only to cleanse the hair. The term was made popular by the Curly Girl Handbook by Lorraine Massey. But is it all that it’s made out to be?
When we first start our curly hair care journeys, many of us throw our shampoos out and switch to a co-wash only routine because it sounds like the least harsh option. After all, shampoo strips the hair of all natural oils and moisture, right? Wrong!
While there is nothing wrong with co-washing and it could definitely have its place in any curly hair routine, it simply does not replace shampoo to cleanse the hair and scalp. Shampoo, no doubt, has a bad rep in the natural hair world. What many don’t know is that shampoo today has many different formulations that are specifically made to address different challenges of curly hair while also retaining moisture.
How does shampoo work?
Shampoo works by removing dirt, oil, products and buildup from the hair. It has two types of properties: lipophilic (oil loving) and hydrophilic (water loving). The lipophilic side attracts oily substances from the hair and the hydrophilic side works to rinse the oily substances out with water. The active cleansing ingredient in shampoo is called a surfactant. Surfactants range from mildly cleansing to strongly cleansing. And this is where the difference in the multitude of shampoos arises: the surfactant in a shampoo is what determines how cleansing it actually is.
What are the different types of shampoos, then?
Clarifying shampoos: These are for squeaky clean hair. Clarifying shampoos are formulated to remove all product and built-up. The purpose is to expose the bare hair strands so that they can absorb water, which leads to true moisture. Clarifying shampoos are necessary for everyone but their frequency or usage should be determined by how dirty and oily your hair and scalp is. Clarifying shampoo should be used as needed because it can be harsh for hair that is already relatively free of dirt, build-up and non-water soluble products.
Chelating shampoos: This type of shampoo is very similar to a clarifying shampoo except that it gets rid of metals, minerals and chlorine that get deposited in the hair due to hard water. This shampoo is great for swimmers.
Moisturizing shampoos: These shampoos have more emollients and humectants and less strong surfactants. They do a good job of getting rid of mild to moderate dirt and build-up in the hair and scalp. However, over time, moisturizing shampoos can contribute to build-up in the hair, which means that it’s time for a clarifying shampoo!
Sulfate free shampoos: These are formulated without sulfates, which are a form of surfactants. Sulfates have a bad name in the hair care industry because they are one of the strongest surfactants and so can cause reactions with the scalp. But don’t believe everything you hear! A non-sulfate surfactant can be overly clarifying, and a sulfate surfactant can be mild.
Co-washes & cleansing conditioners: These are made of lots of conditioning agents and a bit of gentle surfactants. They are able to remove those products from the hair that are water based, water soluble, oil free and silicone free. However, they do nothing to remove oils, butters and heavy product buildup.
Which shampoo should I be using? Should I co-wash?
Well, this depends on how often you shampoo or cleanse your hair, how oily your scalp can get and what kind of products you use.
If you cleanse every few days and use mostly water soluble products, it’s completely okay to co-wash as long as you also shampoo every 2-3 weeks. Since there isn’t much that needs to be removed from the hair that can’t be removed with water, cleansing more than every 2-3 weeks isn’t required. If you cleanse every few days but use oils and butters, you can still co-wash but you should be shampooing more often.
If you cleanse your hair every 2-3 weeks, however, and possibly also use oils and butters, you should be using a shampoo every time you cleanse. If you like to refresh your hair every day or every other day by spraying water and adding some moisturizer or gel, you’d again want to shampoo every 2-3 weeks to get rid of build-up. If you use products with lots of silicones, you should probably be using a clarifying shampoo every 2-3 weeks.
Remember that you don’t have to stick to one routine at all times. You can decide which kind of cleanser to use depending on how your hair and scalp feel on wash day. Choosing what kind of cleanser you should use is something only you can decide. Try different things and see what works best for you. And remember—don’t believe everything you hear!