What is Co-washing?

What is Co-washing? Who is it for? What's the science behind it? Here's everything you need to know.

What is Co-Washing?
Co-washing is the physical act of washing your hair with conditioner instead of shampoo. Think of it as a great washday shortcut. A two-for-one special, if you will. Gentle cleansing with nourishing properties to help hydrate hair.

Don’t you need a shampoo to cleanse?
Well, it depends on what you mean by “cleanse.” Regular sulfate-free shampoos offer gentle cleansing. So, the type of clean you would expect for your hair on day 2. Your hair feels clean without that dry stripped feeling we would feel from shampoos that contain sulfates. Co-washing also offers GENTLE cleaning. The shampoo isn’t the thing that effectively cleans your hair. It’s the physical act of rubbing the scalp when you are washing that cleans and unclogs the hair follicles. So, with that logic in mind, when you are looking for a gentle cleanse, co-washing can take the place of a sulfate free shampoo. It will gently cleanse AND moisturize the hair for a nice shine as well.

If you need more information on the differences between “clarifying” and “gentle cleansing,” make sure to check out the article that lists the differences right here.

How does Co-washing effectively cleanse the hair?
One word, Emulsion.
I know you must be thinking, “How on Earth, would a conditioner remove oils when oil and water do not mix? The only way for co-washing products to remove oil from the scalp and hair is to create a micelle emulsion process. The emulsion process can be described as the preparation to combine two immiscible substances. Immiscible basically means two ingredients that just do not mix. Water and oil are perfect examples. Through this emulsion process, the water and oil are mixed or blended together to allow the co-wash to capture oils and dirt from the hair. Since specific ingredients do not mix, when the bottle is left on a shelf or in the tub, you need to shake the bottle first, because the immiscible substances will separate into layers. By shaking the bottle, you are remixing the immiscible substances will once again blend together to effectively cleanse your hair.

Did you know most rinse out conditioners on the market contain trace amounts of hair detergents called cationic surfactants, or “quats?” When combined with water, quats absorb and cleanse away tiny quantities of dirt. This leaves the newly co-washed hair feeling clean but not “squeaky” clean.

Why should I choose to co-wash instead of shampoo?
Un-shampooed hair better retains its natural oils than shampooed hair. Since conditioners can offer the same clean as a shampoo can, why would you unnecessarily strip your scalp and hair of natural oils when you don’t need to? Co-washing will give that clean feeling while the conditioner’s moisturizing agents will leave hair silky and more manageable than shampoo will.

Not enough of a reason to sway you? Okay, how about this, did you know that co-washing helps protect your hair color? If you are like me and love to color treat your hair (I can’t live without my red highlights) co-washing will be your best friend. Unlike shampoos, conditioners do not strip strands of the pigment (color) you have recently added. This extends the life of your color and makes salon trips less frequent. Let’s be honest who doesn’t love saving money on color treatments?

Whom is Co-washing good for?
• People with fine, straight hair (because fine hair and straight hair are easily weighed down by styling products and often do not get enough hydration because of this)
• People with oily scalps or dermatitis, and other dry scalp issues such as dandruff (please remember co-washing alone does not effectively TREAT these conditions)
• If you cannot salvage day 3-5 curls
• If your hair is a bit drier than normal because of the elements (seasonal changes)
• Best for dry curly/wavy hair

Can I replace my shampoo permanently with co-washing?
I would not advise it. For you to understand, let’s first get into the science of hair and products.

Hair is made up mostly of a protein called Keratin. Keratin is comprised of protein building blocks called amino acids. Amino acids carry a negative charge on the ends of hair. This is why when we used to brush our hair dry it used to frizz out! The negative charge at the ends of our hair created an electric charge that produced frizz.

 Most hair conditioners contain positively charged molecules called cationic surfactants. Don’t know what that is? Make sure to check out our surfactants article to gain a better understanding.  Soap, shampoo, and other cleaners contain surfactants (also called detergents) that are anionic.  These cleaners are very effective at removing dirt, but they also remove natural oils and positive charges from the hair.

  • Cationic surfactants= Positive charges
    Anionic surfactants= Negative Charges
    Human Hair = Negative Charges
    Keratin (protein in human hair) = Negative Charge
    Amino Acids (protein building blocks) = Negative Charge

The positively charged surfactants in hair conditioner are attracted to the negative charges in your hair, and do not rinse out completely with water. When the hair dries, a thin film from the products begins to lightly coat the hair. This adds weight to the hair making it easier to control and prevent its static electricity from building up and frizzing the hair.

Static buildup (resulting in frizz) happens when the positive charges are stripped from the hair. Rubber combs are a perfect example of this, which is why combing your hair on a dry day makes the hair frizz; because the negative charges on your hair are repelling each other! Then again you should never be combing your hair without water and conditioner in it!

All surfactants have a “watery part” and an “oily part”. The watery part is called the hydrophile. This is what sticks to the hair, it also contains the positive charge. The oily part, which is called the hydrophobe, is what gives the surfactant its conditioning ability, as it smooths the hair and gives it weight.

When it comes to co-washing your negatively charged hair, it is immediately attracted to the positively charged conditioners. The only problem is that little film it leaves on your hair to make sure it’s smooth and manageable. Remember when I said that thin film weighs down the hair? Well, that’s going to be the problem with strictly co-washing. Yes, co-washing will gently cleanse the scalp and hair but it will continue to add that weight to your hair making it feel greasy and dirty. Clarifying is a curly girl MUST! You should be using something to clarify at LEAST once a month.

How can I tell if my conditioner is co-wash acceptable?
As we curly girls always say, read your ingredient labels! When picking a conditioner for co-washing try to make sure to avoid:
• Sulfates
• Silicones (water-soluble silicones such as Dimethicone Copolyol and Peg Modified Dimethicone are okay)
• Parabens
• Drying Alcohols
• Waxes

Extra Tip: 
• Try looking for natural cleansing ingredients (Examples: lavender, rosemary, lemongrass, or even apple cider vinegar)

How do I effectively co-wash?
1. Completely soak hair from root to tip. The water will loosen debris from the hair follicles making it easier to rinse out. Soaking your hair also helps distribute your product more evenly.
2. Squeeze out enough conditioner for your scalp and hair. This is the one time I will ever tell you to not worry about the amount of product. Normally, we describe the product by saying “a pea-sized amount,” “a quarter-sized amount.” This is the one time I’ll tell you to squeeze that bottle to your heart’s content to adequately coat the scalp and hair.
3. Focus product application on the scalp first then work your way down the hair. This will help the product breakdown the oils and any left-over styling products from your scalp.
4. Allow the conditioner to sit in hair for 3-5 minutes. You can leave it for a bit longer if your hair is very dry.
5. Use a clarifying shampoo once every 2-4 weeks to keep the balance of your scalp and remove build up. Build up is inevitable which is why co-washing solely won’t work.



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