Co-washing involves using a conditioner to wash the hair instead of a shampoo. Some people find that co-washing helps alleviate hair dryness and reduce breakage. However, it can also lead to a buildup of oily residue in the scalp or hair.
Individuals can manage this by occasionally using a clarifying shampoo to remove buildup. How often a person should do this can vary depending on their hair type. In general, fine or fine hair is more prone to visible oil buildup than thicker hair.
There are no standard scientific guidelines for choosing the right way to wash your hair. Some people cowash every day or only a few times a week or month. The best option may depend on a person’s hair type, how they respond to their regimen, cultural norms, and personal preferences.
This article looks at what cowashing is, how it works, its benefits, and how to choose a conditioner. We also provide a step-by-step guide to trying cowash at home.
The term “cowashing” is a combination of the words “conditioner” and “washing”. It’s about using a conditioner to clean the hair, rather than a shampoo. This can be a regular hair conditioner or something specifically designed for cowashing.
When co-washing, a person applies conditioner to the hair and scalp, gently rubbing the scalp with fingertips to remove any buildup.
Co-washing can completely replace shampoo, or a person can alternate between the two. Some people who cowash do so as part of a specific hair care routine, such as the “Curly Girl Method,” which involves using silicone-, sulfate-, and alcohol-free products to maintain healthy curly hair. .
Shampoo and conditioner serve two different purposes. Shampoos aim to remove oils and buildup from the hair and scalp, while conditioners generally add moisture and smooth the hair cuticle.
However, they have something in common: shampoo and conditioner contain surfactants, substances that can remove oil and dirt.
Shampoo usually contains harsher anionic surfactants, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, which creates lather. Sometimes they contain milder amphoteric surfactants instead. These are common ingredients in baby shampoos.
In contrast, conditioners usually contain cationic surfactants, such as cetyl alcohol. These substances adhere to the surface of the hair, coating the follicle and smoothing it, rather than creating foam.
The presence of surfactants in conditioners makes it possible to wash your hair only with this product. However, unlike shampoo, co-washing won’t strip the hair or scalp of as much moisture.
There is no scientific data on the benefits of cowashing. This is because it is largely a cultural practice and currently no studies have examined its effect on hair.
However, people who choose to cowash report several benefits, including:
- more hydrated and healthy hair
- better hydration of curly or frizzy hair and better curl definition
- stronger hair that breaks less easily
- buy fewer hair products, which saves money
- being able to wash your hair less frequently
Another potential benefit is environmental, as using a single product to clean hair reduces consumption. Some companies that make cowash products also aim to be sustainable. They can:
- exclude ingredients that do not biodegrade, such as silicones, from their products
- use ingredients from responsible sources
- use recyclable or plastic-free packaging
- turn their cowash into a solid bar, reducing the need for additional packaging
However, this does not apply to all conditioners. If a person wants to switch to more sustainable hair products, it is best to research the product, its ingredients, and the company’s practices.
Anyone can try cowashing, but whether it helps a person maintain healthy hair depends on their hair type. Indeed, different hair types have different needs.
Highly porous hair easily accepts moisture, but also loses it quickly. In contrast, low porosity hair accepts moisture less easily but also retains it longer.
Here’s a guide on how hair types might react to cowashing. However, it is important to note that these are generalizations – what works for one person may not always work for another.
Straight hair has a round cuticle, which helps it lay flat. This means that straight hair generally has low porosity and loses moisture less quickly than other hair types. It also makes it easier for oil from the scalp to move along the shaft, sealing in moisture.
These qualities mean that straight hair tends to be smooth and shiny, as long as it is healthy. However, it can also become dry if it does not easily absorb moisture. It can also get visibly greasy faster, especially if the hair is fine or fine.
People with this hair type may find that a lighter conditioner is better for co-washing. They may also benefit from using fewer styling products, so as not to weigh down the hair. A clarifying shampoo can help remove buildup.
Wavy hair features an oval shaped shaft. It is generally more porous and prone to dryness or frizz than straight hair, but not as much as curly hair. It can be fine and silky or coarse and thick.
How wavy hair reacts to cowash varies. Generally, those with thicker or drier hair can benefit from choosing thicker, more intensely hydrating cowash products. Those with finer hair may prefer a lighter conditioner and more frequent shampoos.
Curly hair has an “S” or corkscrew shape. This means that the hair’s cuticle lifts in various places, causing it to tend to be less shiny and more porous than straight hair. It is also
Cowashing can be helpful for people with this hair type. Some people follow the co-wash with a moisturizing conditioner, which they cannot fully rinse out. Alternatively, they can use a leave-in conditioner when styling.
Curly or textured hair
Curly hair has an elliptical shaft, with tight curls or a Z-shaped pattern. It tends to be porous and vulnerable to dryness or breakage. However, it often responds well to less frequent washing, giving the natural oils a chance to coat the hair.
Co-washing can also help with this, as it avoids using harsh surfactants that further strip moisture from the hair. It can also help seal in water that gets into the hair during washing. After washing, it may help to use a leave-in conditioner that contains a humectant, which draws moisture to the hair.
No conditioner is suitable for all hair types. Even people with very similar hair may find that their hair reacts differently to the same product. The way hair reacts to a product can also change over time. For example, the seasons can influence how dry hair is and therefore the best conditioner to use as a cowash.
Start by determining the porosity of the hair. People can do this in one of the following ways:
- Spray test: Spray water on clean, dry hair. If the hair has low porosity, the water beads will stay on it longer, while in high porosity hair, they will disappear faster.
- Floating test: Place a clean section of hair in a bowl of water. Hair that immediately falls to the bottom has high porosity. Gradually sinking hair is medium porosity, while floating hair is low porosity.
- Observation: If it takes a while to get the hair wet in the shower, it may have low porosity.
People with high porosity hair can benefit from conditioners that contain proteins, such as silk protein. They also tend to favor conditioners that contain heavier oils and butters, like avocado or shea, to seal in moisture.
On the other hand, those with low porosity hair may find that protein treatments lead to stiffness and hair buildup because the hair does not absorb them. They may see more benefits with conditioners that don’t contain protein or heavy butters. Instead, look for products with lighter oils, like coconut, or humectants, like glycerin.
Trying different products may be necessary to find a suitable routine with the right one. Try testing one at a time for a few washes each, monitoring how the hair reacts.
To try the cowash, start by wetting the hair thoroughly. Apply conditioner to scalp and gently rub in with fingertips. A person can wash for a few seconds or rub for several minutes if the scalp is very oily.
Then, rinse out the conditioner completely. Then, apply the same product as a typical conditioner, smoothing the hair all the way to the ends, and do not rub.
A person may wish to leave the conditioner on for a few minutes or rinse off immediately. Those with very dry hair may prefer to leave a small amount on the hair rather than rinsing it all out.
People using leave-in conditioners should apply them immediately after washing.
Start by doing a cowash once a week to see how you feel. If it makes their hair feel healthy and hydrated, a person may want to increase the number of times per week or more.
Cowashing is an alternative to shampoos. It involves using a conditioner to clean the hair, which may be beneficial for some people. It is popular among those with dry, coarse, curly or frizzy hair to boost moisture.
This approach requires a willingness to experiment and adapt their co-washing approach to how the hair reacts. A person may need to try several products before finding the one they like.
Hair co-washing forums can be useful for getting feedback from others with similar hair types. A hairdresser or dermatologist may also be able to give you advice.