If you have type-4 hair (i.e. coily or zigzagged, if you’re unclear about your curl type), you’ve probably been subscribing to the co-wash or cleansing-conditioner life for years. But if you’re new to the natural curl game, or you’re just fed up with your coarse, thick waves or curls feeling dry, undefined, and, well, blah, there’s a good chance it’s time to swap your shampoo for a co-wash (or “no poo,” as it’s often called).
And if you’re still completely confused as to WTF co-washing is, why it’s better than shampoo, and how to actually co-wash your hair, don’t freak—I’ve spent years obsessively researching everything there is to know about co-washing my own 3a curls, and now, I bestow this knowledge onto you.
What is co-wash?
Co-washing (aka conditioner-only washing, aka no-poo) is when you—yup—use only conditioner to rinse your hair and cleanse your scalp. Unless you’re already slathering oils and butters on your hair every day, the idea of massaging conditioner through your roots can sound positively insane. But wavy-curly, curly, and coily hair need moisture (usually way more than you realize), and co-washing your hair with conditioner rather than a harsh, sulfate-filled shampoo (THE DEVIL) will soften and hydrate it instead of stripping it.
And, because oil helps break down oil, your co-wash will still dissolve some scalp oils and cleanse your hair, so you won’t be left day 20-looking greasy hair. *Shudder*. The only difference: You’ll need to spend at least 60 seconds massaging your co-wash into your scalp, and another 60 seconds really rinsing it out (really—count the seconds, sing a song, do whatever you need to do, but spend some extra time massaging your scalp, k?). It can be a trial-and-error situation the first few times, but trust: It’s worth it.
Can you co-wash with any conditioner?
Yes, you can, but some conditioners are better formulated specifically to cleanse your scalp, versus just moisturize it. If it’s specifically called a cleansing conditioner or a co-wash, it’s more likely to be filled with super gentle, surfactant-like ingredients that help break down oils to give you a cleaner feeling. That said, the conditioner you “should” use totally depends on one thing: your hair type.
If you have fine and/or normal-to-low-porosity waves or curls (not sure WTF your porosity is? Don’t worry—there’s a quiz), you should try a semi-lightweight co-wash, like Live Clean Apple Cider Refresh Conditioner, which contains fewer oils to weigh your hair down. And if your hair is highly porous (usually hair that’s color-treated or chemically processed, or ultra-dry, type 4 hair), go with a co-wash that’s a bit richer, like Shea Moisture Curl Moisture Co-Wash (still semi-lightweight, but ultra-hydrating). Or, just try co-washing with your usual conditioner and see how you feel—there isn’t an exact science, only moisture, moisture, and more moisture.
Will co-washing make my hair greasy?
If you’re new to co-washing, or have naturally oily roots, this can be the biggest roadblock to mentally get over: will co-washing make your hair greasy? And the answer totally depends on your hair type (see above), the co-wash you’re using (see above), aaaand which school of thought you choose to believe.
If you ask the hundreds of thousands of people on the curly-hair parts of Reddit (and probably a million more around the world), they’ll all say, yes, sure, co-washing might make your hair oilier in the first month or two, but that it’ll actually make your hair less greasy over time, as you basically train your scalp to produce less oily by giving it all the moisture it needs, first. And while your scalp is going through the adjustment period, you can load up on dry shampoo to curb the grease.
Experts are split on this belief, though—some dermatologists I’ve spoken with say your oil production is genetic, and you can’t actually change it in a meaningful way. But other dermatologists, like Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale University, are a bit more positive: “I think if you’re stripping your scalp with a sulfate shampoo, you may be able to calm some of the excess oil production by switching to a moisturizing co-wash,” she says.
In reality, there’s no hard science behind training your scalp (even though, trust me, thousands of people on the internet swear by it), so you’ll have to test it out for at least 4-6 weeks and see how your hair reacts. And if your hair is especially fine or already oil-prone, try swapping your co-wash with a sulfate-free shampoo once a week (I love Kinky Curly Come Clean Shampoo) to break down build-up and get that super-clean feeling again.
How often should you co-wash?
Ideally, every time you wash your hair. For some people with oilier scalps, they may need to wash their hair daily (it’s not actually damaging if you’re using moisturizing co-washes and conditioners), and for others, they may only need to wash their hair once a week. Basically, whenever you’d normally shampoo your hair, just use a co-wash instead, and always follow up with your usual conditioner and/or leave-in conditioner, too.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t co-wash?
For the majority of people, co-washing can radically transform your curls and coils. But for some people, like those with waves or ultra-fine curls, they may never be able to comfortably co-wash on a regular basis (example: I can co-wash one out of every three washes—I use Kinky Curly Knot Today Conditioner as a co-wash, alternated with Not Your Mother's Naturals Royal Honey & Kalahari Desert Melon Shampoo—though I gave co-washing a solid two months before deciding it was too moisturizing for me). So give it the ol’ ~college try~ before making a final decision.
Important note, though: Not all hair types can comfortably co-wash, sadly. “If you have seborrheic dermatitis, washing your hair less can actually create more oil and inflammation,” says Dr. Gohara, since the yeast on your scalp feeds on the grease and bacteria, making your seb derm worse. Yum. Still, you shouldn't have to choose scalp health or curl health, so chat with your derm to see if co-washing once or twice a week could be right for you.
Co-washing can make curly, coily, and some wavy hair types feel more hydrated, defined, and healthier—you just need to make sure you’re using the right formula for your hair type. Regardless of which one you choose, though, give co-washing at least six weeks before deciding whether or not it’s right for your hair. You may just need to add in a clarifying shampoo once a week, or switch your cleansing conditioner to a more lightweight formula. Either way, it can’t hurt to give the co-wash a try—your selfie life may just thank you for it.
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