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Everything you want to know about co-washing

You may have heard of co-washing, but what is it? Why is everyone talking about it? And—most importantly—should you be doing it, too?

Co-washing can drastically change your hair in a lot of positive ways.

Moving away from shampoo and turning to co-washing could very well be the secret to softer, healthier hair for you.

Co-washing is short for conditioner washing: washing your hair with conditioner instead of shampoo.

Co-washing is a method where you only wash your hair with conditioner. Co-washing is especially beneficial for hair that’s dry, curly, wavy or coily.

You may have heard of co-washing as it is one of the most important steps in the Curly Girl Method. Co-washing is what allows you to stop the damaging practice of shampooing your curls.

Curious how that works, what type of conditioner is best and if it will really clean your hair?

Why would you want to do this and can it really help you get that holy grail: clean hair without drying out your scalp?

Read on to discover all about the benefits of co-washing.

In this article:

In this article:

What is co-washing?


What exactly does it mean to co-wash? Why has it become so popular? And, finally, should you also be doing it?

Co-washing is the act of washing your hair with conditioner — and only conditioner. It’s also known as conditioner-only washing and has the additional benefit of also hydrating your hair.

Conditioners work in the same way as shampoos do to remove oil and dirt, they are just less efficient, which is why they dry hair out less (and of course, they don’t produce lather).

Most conditioners contain trace amounts of detergents called cationic surfactants, or “quats” for short. Some common types that you can find on your conditioner’s ingredient list are cetrimonium and behentrimonium chloride.

When mixed with water, the quats pick up tiny amounts of dirt, leaving unshampooed hair feeling clean, but not too clean (a common beauty mistake to avoid).

The emulsifiers (ingredients which mix oil and water together) in conditioners bind to oil on your scalp and hair shaft and are rinsed down the drain when you rinse off.

At the same time, the conditioner contains, well, conditioners.

Since unshampooed hair retains more of its natural oils than shampooed hair, the conditioner’s moisturizing agents will now leave your strands even smoother and silkier than usual.

Conditioner vs shampoo

Woman with curly hair

Conditioner is used to replace shampoos, which offer a harsher method of washing your hair, potentially drying out your scalp as well as your hair.

The main culprit, that is an ingredient in many shampoos, is Sodium Laureth Sulfate or another type of sulfate.

Sulfates are a detergent that thoroughly clean your hair. These harsh cleansers do their job so well that they wash away the natural oils from your hair and damage the structure of your hair.

In many cases, that cleansing effect is too intense on your scalp and hair. This can cause an irritated and dry scalp and hair that quickly becomes overly dry or greasy and frizzy.

Fortunately, co-washing is much gentler on your hair and scalp.

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.

If you have coily, mixed-textured, curly, or extremely dry hair, there’s a chance that your hair care routine could benefit from it.

What are the benefits of co-washing?


It’s fairly common knowledge that most curly hair needs a different approach to washing than straighter hair does, but what exactly are the benefits of co-washing?

The result of co-washing hair falls somewhere between squeaky-clean and second-day hair—that is, you’ll be dealing with smoother, softer, and easier-to-manage locks, especially if you’ve got a head of curls or waves.

Curly hair is naturally drier than straight hair. The oils your scalp produces, unlike straight hair, take longer to get to the hair strands. So if you keep washing your hair with a shampoo that contains a lot of harsh cleansers, your hair will stay dry.

The benefits of co-washing are as follows:

  • Your hair and scalp will stay hydrated.
  • Your hair will become more shiny
  • Hair will become less prone to frizziness
  • It helps make your curls more defined
  • It makes your hair softer, making it less brittle and easier to comb.

How does co-washing work?

Shower, build up, overload

Fortunately, co-washing is very easy.

You start off by picking a co-wash or a suitable conditioner. A co-wash is a specially designed hair product. It’s a conditioner designed to be used to wash your hair.

Co-washes really aren’t too different in formulation to a conditioner (despite the marketing!).

If anything, they tend to be much lighter in oils and designed to be rinsed out easily, but at their heart, they are still a conditioner.

Eliminating shampoo from your hair-washing routine requires adjustments to how you rinse and condition your hair. Here are step-by-step directions for a smooth transition.

Co-washing really is very easy:

  • Get in the shower and saturate your hair (the wetter the better!).
  • Grab your co-wash or conditioner.
  • Apply your co-wash or conditioner, until you feel there is enough product in your hair.
  • Massage your scalp really well, to ensure you remove old dirt and oil.
  • Squeeze the co-wash into your hair, from your roots to your ends. Just like you would with regular shampoo.
  • Optionally leave the co-wash on for a few minutes.
  • Rinse with warm water and you are done!
  • You can follow this up with a deep conditioner as you would normally too, followed by your preferred curl routine.
  • Use a clarifying shampoo once every two to four weeks.

If your hair and scalp still don’t feel completely clean, you can repeat this process again – or as often as necessary. And that is it!

If you feel like your hair has too much build-up and could use a clarify, you can occasionally alternate co-washing with a CG-proof clarifying shampoo wash.

Buildup—from sweat, stylers, or conditioner—is inevitable, regardless of whether you shampoo or co-wash.

Experiment with how frequently you need to clarify your hair. In general, a once-a-month or twice-a-month wash will cure hair dullness without drying.

If your hair still feels weighed down after biweekly clarifying, alternate as needed between co-washing and shampooing. This should yield the benefits of co-washing but with more volume.

And if you feel like you would like a real deep clean, you could treat yourself to an exfoliating scalp treatment.

What types of hair is co-washing best for?

proteïne en krullen

Not sure if you should completely ditch your shampoo for conditioner-only cleansing?

If your hair is dry, or it’s curly or wavy (both of which tend to be naturally dry), chances are you’ll benefit from co-washing. In fact, many curlies have been washing with conditioner alone for years.

As long as the co-wash you use has the right ingredients for your hair and you rinse it well, co-washing works for every curl and hair type.

Co-washing helps to moisturize your hair, so for those with thick, dry and porous hair, co-washing is totally recommended.

Who should skip co-washing?

If your hair is badly damaged, co-washing is not always recommended. Conditioner makes your hair soft and hair that is weak or very damaged could become even weaker.

People with fine, straight hair should skip co-washing because their hair could get weighed down.

Those with an oily scalp or dermatitis should steer clear, too. Co-washing is not ideal for overly oily hair. Co-washing alone doesn’t effectively treat either condition. Stick with a regular shampoo that is free from harsh detergents and then condition after.

What conditioners are suitable for co-washing?


If your hair is on the coarser or thicker side, the daily conditioner that’s already sitting in your shower may be all that you need.
Just make sure you avoid conditioners with silicones, such as dimethicone, in the ingredient list. These are often added to conventional conditioners to smoothen your hair.

But if you don’t shampoo daily, using a conventional shampoo with sulfates, silicones can build up and weigh down your strands.

If your hair isn’t as thick, you may do better with a product specifically designed for co-washing, called ‘cleansing conditioners’ or simply ‘co-wash’.

These contain more cleanser than typical conditioners do but in the form of natural ingredients (like aloe vera), which remove grit more gently.

If you follow the Curly Girl Method, you want a conditioner that is free of silicones in addition to sulfates. Silicones seal your hair, which means that they cover your hair with some kind of thin layer that creates build up.

Nourishing hair products – that care for your hair – cannot penetrate into your hair shaft when you use products with silicones. Most silicones are very difficult to wash out of your hair, and will cause build up.

Deep conditioners and intensive hair masks are not recommended to use to co-wash. These products are a lot heavier and not suitable for use several times a week. They cause build up faster. So preferably go for a natural and light conditioner.

What is build up?

Conditioners generally leave a thin film on the hair to condition the hair. Not only chemicals such as silicones, but also natural ingredients such as coconut oil stick to the hair and can build up gradually. This is called build-up.

How do you know that you are experiencing build-up? Your hair will become duller, less shiny, and your scalp may feel itchy.

Also, your curls may not form as well as they normally would. That’s the point where many people give up the Curly Girl Method.
But that is also the point when it is important to keep going. These are signs that you need to cleanse your hair a little deeper, also known as clarifying.

When do you use a clarifying wash?

While we’re big fans of co-washing, we still like to have a shampoo or two on hand for specific occasions.

Any time your hair accumulates lots of sweat, grime, and dirt, we like to thoroughly wash away the buildup in our hair.

Ditto for if you have a very special event; hair is often much more cooperative on a freshly shampooed and conditioned canvas, so it may be worth doing a full wash on those special days.

Suffering from build-up? It may be time for a co-wash!

After using a co-wash, do you have a dry, itchy or flaky scalp, oily hair, products that suddenly stop working, or lifeless curls?

Then it sounds like you may have build-up, and your curls probably need to be clarified.

Basically, you can clarify your hair by using a CG-proof shampoo. There are even special CG-proof clarifying shampoos for sale, which contain more cleansing ingredients than a normal conditioner, but less than a shampoo.

Another way to clarify your curls is with a mixture of water and apple cider vinegar. This removes build up from your hair, keeping your scalp and hair clean and healthy.

In addition, it nourishes your hair with nutrients, provided you use organic apple cider vinegar. This includes vitamins B, C and potassium, which helps you get and maintain healthy hair.

Have you just done a clarifying wash? Then the symptoms you notice may also be signs that you are using products that are too heavy, or your hair is still getting used to co-washing.

Transitioning to co-washing can require some patience…

It really takes a few weeks for your hair to transition to co-washing. Do not clarify too often, because that could also be harmful to your hair.

If you stick with co-washing, we promise you that after a while you will start to experience the full benefits of co-washing. More volume, more shine, less frizz, beautiful healthy and nourished curls. Who would not want that?

We are curious how you like co-washing. Will you let us know on Instagram? And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

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