Co-washing: it's all the buzz among curlies looking to cleanse their hair and scalp without stripping it of moisture. The general premise of co-washing involves utilizing conditioner or conditioner-like products to gently lift dirt and buildup.
For years, curlies and naturals have used store brand conditioners like Herbal Essence Hello Hydration, Aussie Moist, Trader Joe's Tea Tree Tingle, V05, and Suave to simultaneously co-wash, detangle, and condition their hair.
But as natural hair gains more traction among mainstream and natural hair product manufacturers, products specifically labeled as co-washes or cleansing conditioners have begun to emerge. Often times, the aforementioned tried and true conditioners fall under $5 for a lifetime supply (just kidding, we go through conditioner faster than anything). However, many of the new co-wash kids on the block cost nearly double if not more.
Are they worth it? Has conditioner really been working as well as we thought, or should we look to these specific co-washing products to do the job more effectively? Before going into detail, let's discuss the benefits and drawbacks of co-washing in general:
Benefits of co-washing
Co-washing is incredibly gentle on the hair
It can gently lift light dirt and product buildup from the hair
Conditioner can be used to cleanse and detangle at the same time
- Conditioners correct the charge of the hair and lay the cuticle flat, aiding in moisture retention and increasing strength and shine
Conditioners may not be strong enough to remove heavy buildup and clarify the scalp
Conditioners contain cationic surfactants that are designed to stick to the hair, whereas shampoos contain anionic surfactants. Translation: co-washing has the potential to cause more buildup than it removes.
Although deciding to co-wash is an individual decision, the benefits and drawbacks listed above are best to keep in mind - especially the last point. The cationic (positively charged) surfactants in conditioners such as stearalkonium, cetrimonium, and behentimonium chlorides, behentrimonium methosulfate, and stearamidopropyl dimethylamine are designed to soften the hair and stick to it (because hair has a slight negative charge), which in theory could lead to more buildup. But at the same time, they do possess some capacity to gently lift dirt and oil. According to Jc of The Natural Haven Bloom, "in the grand scheme of things, shampoo will remove more dirt and oil than conditioner, and conditioner will remove more dirt and oil than plain water." So at the end of the day, determining whether to co-wash and what to do it with lies in what works best for your hair.
Conditioner vs. Co-wash
Now, back to the original question. Is regular conditioner good enough? Let's examine the ingredient list of a popular regular conditioner, and a popular co-washing product:
Tresemme Naturals Moisturizing Conditioner
- Ingredients: Water , Cetearyl Alcohol , Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine , Behentrimonium Chloride , Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil , Brassica Campestris/Aleurites Fordi Oil Copolymer , Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract , Fragrance , Dipropylene Glycol , Potassium Chloride , Lactic Acid , Disodium EDTA , DMDM Hydantoin , PEG 150 Distearate , Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride , Lauroyl Lysine , Methylchloroisothiazolinone , Methylisothiazolinone
As I Am Coconut CoWash
- Ingredients: Aqueous (Water, Aqua Purificada, Purified) Extracts: Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) and Citrus Reticulata (Tangerine)¹, Cetyl Alcohol², Cetrimonium Chloride, Cetearyl Alcohol², PEG-40 Castor Oil, Stearlkonium chloride, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil², Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil¹, Phytosterols¹, Serenoa Serrulata Fruit Extract¹, Quaternium-18, Potassium Sorbate, Fragrance/Parfum, Limonene, Methylisothiazolinone. Source: 1-Natural, 2-Coconut
What's the difference?
Minus the extracts (which are likely infused into the water) in the As I Am Coconut Co-wash, both products are water-based, contain a fatty alcohol (cetyl), cationic surfactants, and oils in the top list of ingredients. While those surfactants and oils vary somewhat, they are all designed to serve the same essential functions - correcting hair charge, flattening cuticles, softening the hair, nourishing, improving elasticity, and increasing shine. So from an ingredient-based perspective, the answer to the original question is:
Is daily conditioner good enough to co-wash?
YES! Yes you can use conditioner to co-wash effectively. You don't need to spend extra money on specific co-washing products - unless you want to.
How to choose a conditioner to co-wash with
Just take some considerations when selecting a conditioner to co-wash your hair with (these considerations don't apply when it comes to co-wash specific products):
- Do not use deep conditioners and treatments to co-wash. These products tend to contain higher concentrations of the aforementioned cationic surfactants, and will likely lead to even more buildup than a regular rinse-out conditioner.
- 'Cones are ok. A lot of conditioner favorites contain silicones that coat the hair and create slip, making it easier to detangle the hair. Be not wary; these silicones tend to be water-soluble and rinse right down the drain when all is said and done. The cone challenge comes into play if you frequently use thicker silicone-based serums regularly. Those can coat the hair and effectively block moisture from coming in (think anti-frizz/humidity serums), and require more than conditioner to get them gone.
- Rinse hair thoroughly before applying conditioner to wash the hair. This makes the co-washing easier and more effective, and prevents the conditioner from just directly "sticking" to your hair (this advice is anecdotal and from experience, not scientifically based).
- Do use shampoo or a clarifying product every so often. Because co-washing is not as effective, a clean slate start is a must every month or so. If you are not partial to shampoo (it does not necessarily have to contain sulfates), shampoo bars (click here for a list of great shampoo bars) are a completely viable alternative. Or, you can use clay or apple cider vinegar.
Interested in starting a Curly Girl Method journey? Check out our guide on How To Follow The Curly Girl Method.
If you're shopping for a conditioner, here's a list of our favorites, as chosen by our NaturallyCurly editors.
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This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated for grammar and clarity.