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You’ve likely already heard about cleansing conditioners or the term co-washing—it’s not a new concept in the beauty world. The basic premise: Using a cleansing conditioner to wash your hair, rather than traditional shampoo, is gentler and more hydrating for your hair. When you co-wash, that cleansing conditioner does the job of both shampoo and conditioner in one fell swoop, removing excess dirt and oil while also smoothing and softening your hair. The gentler part of things comes into play because cleansing conditioners don’t contain sulfates, the detergents found in some shampoos, which can admittedly be harsh and stripping. And that’s exactly why co-washing first became a thing for those with curly and natural hair, given that those textures are more prone to dryness and frizz. As we said, this is all kind of old news, but what is new and noteworthy is the increased popularity of co-washing for all other hair types and textures.
Meet the Expert
Bradley Leake is a Los Angeles-based celebrity hairstylist and hair colorist. He has extensive training in precision hair cutting, dimensional hair color, balayage, extensions, and red carpet hair styling.
So if you’re on the hunt for the best cleansing conditioner that’s right for your hair, look no further for expert advice from celeb hairstylist Bradley Leake, and our product picks.
Best Overall: Unwash Bio-Cleansing Conditioner
Helps hair dry faster
Safe for color- and/or chemically-treated hair
Might make hair dull-looking
Per our point about co-washing being an effective option for all hair types, this formula does, in fact, work well on everything from super straight hair to kinky curls. It’s also safe for color- and/or chemically-treated hair, and may even help your hair dry faster afterward. Rather than using sulfates or soaps, it relies on cationic cleansers that work like magnets to remove dirt, oil, and other unwanted grime. Science is so cool.
Hair Type: All | Size: 2.5 fl. oz., 13.5 fl. oz., or 33.8 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Budget: L'Oréal Paris EverPure Cleansing Balm
Mint smell may be overwhelming to some
Think of this as a deep conditioner that transforms into a cleanser. Sulfate-, paraben-, and silicone-free, it moisturizes and adds mirror-like shine while also cleaning your hair and scalp without drying them out. Oh, and did we mention it costs less than most lunches? FYI, for the best results, let it sit on the hair for three to five minutes.
Hair Type: Dry | Size: 16.9 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Budget, Runner-Up: Kristin Ess Ultra Hydrating Curl Co-Wash
Shields hair from humidity
Very thick consistency
Celebrity hairstylist Bradley Leake says it’s one of his favorite drugstore buys. Great for medium to coarse curl types, it shields hair from frizz-causing humidity. Plus, we’d be remiss not to mention the super chic packaging that’s even more noteworthy given that affordable price tag.
Hair Type: Curly, Natural | Size: 8.45 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Drugstore: Pantene Gold Series Deep Hydrating Co-Wash
Creates ultimate softness
Leaves a bit of residue
This low-lather, extra-gentle formula is packed with argan oil to add plenty of softness and strengthen hair against potential damage. While this line was formulated for African-American and textured hair, it can be used on any thicker or coarser hair; try replacing your standard shampoo and conditioner with this one-step option every other time you wash.
Hair Type: Curly, Coily | Size: 15.2 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Curly Hair: Ouidad Curl Shaper Double Duty Weightless Cleansing Conditioner
Pleasant, light scent
Doesn't have a lot of 'slip'
As we mentioned, co-washing is beloved by curly girls as a great way to help retain moisture in their hair, and this is an especially great pick. It’s a favorite of Leake, who lauds it for not only effectively cleansing and hydrating but also containing nutrients, such as rice bran oil, that help repair and strengthen hair. To that point, this formula is also ideal for improving the elasticity of curls, always a good thing.
Hair Type: Frizzy | Size: 3.2 fl. oz. or 16.9 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Color-Treated Hair: Nexxus Color Assure Cleansing Conditioner for Color Treated Hair
Infused with protein blend for strengthening
Creates visible color vibrancy
May be drying for some
The harsh detergents found in many traditional shampoos can not only take a toll on the health of your hair, but they can also do a number on your color, stripping out the dye molecules much faster than you’d like. That’s why cleansing conditioners are such a great solution for anyone who colors their hair; we’re especially partial to this one. Along with the fact that it’s clinically proven to extend color vibrancy (NBD), it also has a special blend of proteins that helps to strengthen. And that’s super important, given that the coloring process damages many of the amino acids and protein naturally found in your hair.
Hair Type: Color-Treated | Size: 8.5 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Natural Hair: Mizani True Textures Cream Cleansing Conditioner
Foams up a bit for cleansing feel
May tangle up the hair
No matter whether your natural texture is wavy, a little curly, or coiled, this is a great option. Three different oils—coconut, marula, and olive—work in tandem to add plenty of moisture, shine, and softness to your natural curl pattern, while also warding off frizz. It’s a favorite of Leake’s, who points out that it’s great for everyday use as well.
Hair Type: Straight, Wavy, Curly, and Coily | Size: 16.9 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Dry Hair: Briogeo Be Gentle Be Kind Avocado + Quinoa Co-Wash
Protects hair from environmental impurities
Leaves hair feeling greasy
Textures aside, the innately moisturizing, non-stripping nature of a cleansing conditioner makes it ideal for anyone with dry hair. The stars of the show here are moisturizing shea butter and avocado oil. Quinoa extract piggy-backs off that dream team combo, helping to bolster the strength of your hair. And not only is this formula sulfate-free, but it’s also free of silicones, phthalates, parabens, and dyes, a smart choice for those who have an easily irritated scalp.
Hair Type: Dry | Size: 16.0 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Straight Hair: Mixed Chicks Conditioning Cleansing Co-Wash Shampoo Alternative
Maintains hair's natural moisture levels
Makes hair more resilient
May create dullness for some
Believe it, you can use a co-wash even if you have straight hair. Try this guy, a no-lather option that relies on a trio of olive, jojoba, and castor oils. It effectively removes grime, hydrates, and helps detangle the hair (always nice for those who have straight hair that is prone to snarls) but doesn’t leave behind any residue or build-up, the last thing you want if you have straight hair.
Hair Type: All | Size: 8.0 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Fine Hair: WEN by Chaz Dean Cucumber Aloe Cleansing Conditioner
Multiple scents available
May not suit sensitive scalps
The Wen cleansing conditioners might be some of the best known out there, not to mention that the line offers a ton of variety. For finer textures, we’re partial to this option, the lightest formula of them all. It uses aloe to moisturize without weighing down the hair and also contains witch hazel to help clarify the scalp. A boon for those with fine hair, which also tend to be prone to having oilier scalps.
Hair Type: All | Size: 32.0 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Foam: R+Co Analog Cleansing Foam Conditioner
Smooths the cuticle
Can be used daily
May leave hair feeling sticky
Generally speaking, most cleansing conditioners don’t really lather, so if you’re craving some suds, reach for this option. The foam cleanses while also delivering a laundry list of good-for-your hair ingredients, think softening argan oil, antioxidant-rich green tea, and even a thermal polymer to ward off heat styling-induced damage. And the bonus of the foam formula? It’s super weightless, especially ideal if you have finer hair that’s easily weighed down.
Hair Type: Color-Treated, Dry, Coarse | Size: 5.75 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Scent: Paul Mitchell Lavender Mint Moisturizing Cowash
Creates an aromatherapy experience
Gently removes buildup
Comes in recyclable packaging
“Infused with tea tree oil, lavender, and peppermint, this co-wash transforms your everyday shower into a spa-like experience,” says Leake. And really, who doesn’t want that, especially on a sleepy morning? Rich and creamy, this is an especially good option for those with coarse, dry hair, as it helps lock in natural oils and fight frizz, too.
Hair Type: Curly, Dry, Coarse | Size: 16.9 fl. oz. or 33.8 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Cleansing conditioners are a good option for more than just the curly set. The Unwash Bio-Cleansing Conditioner (view at Amazon) is our universal favorite, a great choice no matter whether you have super straight hair or kinky curls. But on the point of curly hair, the Ouidad Curl Shaper Double Duty Weightless Cleansing Conditioner (view at Ulta) is ideal for those with all types of curls. And be sure to check out the variety of amazing, affordable cleansing conditioners to be found at the drugstore. The L’Oréal Paris EverPure Cleansing Balm (view at Amazon), which is great for all textures, and a favorite for curls, the Kristin Ess Ultra Hydrating Curl Co-Wash (view at Ulta), are both prime examples, as is the Nexxus Color Assure Cleansing Conditioner for Color Treated Hair (view at Walmart), great for those with color-treated hair.
What To Look For in a Cleansing Conditioner
This one should be a given, but it’s always a good idea to triple-check and make sure your cleansing conditioner doesn’t contain any potentially drying or stripping sulfates.
Leake is quick to note that exactly what type of cleansing conditioner you choose, and the particular ingredients you should seek out, are very much dependent on your unique hair type. If you have curly hair, look for argan oil: “It’s moisturizing and won’t weigh down curls, just detangle and soften them, and even if your hair is fine or thin it won’t leave it greasy,” he says.
Per the previous point, this thicker and richer oil is better suited for those with thick, coarse textures, who don’t have to worry about their hair looking flat or being weighed down, says Leake.
How does a co-wash, or cleansing conditioner, work?
“Cleansing conditioners have special cleansing ingredients that gently cleanse and remove product buildup, leaving you with a soft and clean feeling,” Jamyla Bennu, founder of haircare line Oyin Handmade, tells Byrdie. “It's also a huge time-saver because you're cleansing and conditioning in one step.” According to Bennu, these formulas are designed to cleanse your hair without any lather, as they don’t contain parabens and sulfates.
How do I co-wash my hair?
In the shower, apply the first round of conditioner, then scrub your scalp. “The friction and scrubbing motion is what's removing dirt and grime from your scalp,” says Mia Emilio, master stylist at Devachan NYC. “Without friction, you're not cleaning anything.” Rinse your hair completely, then apply a second layer, working from your ends all the way to your mid-lengths. “This is to detangle, but also to condition your strands,” Emilio says. “This round of conditioner does not need to be applied to your scalp." Rinse until all product is removed from your hair, then repeat as needed.
Can I use a regular conditioner to co-wash my hair?
While cleansing conditioners and traditional conditioners may seem similar, they’re not completely interchangeable.A cleansing conditioner can replace a traditional conditioner in your routine, but not vice-versa. Traditional conditioners lack the cleansing ingredients and may result in product buildup, scalp irritation, or a general greasy feeling.
Why Trust Byrdie
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. As someone who has oily hair and has to wash it daily, she’s always on the hunt for options that will allow her to do so without over-drying her hair or stripping her color—like a cleansing conditioner.