If you have curly hair that needs tons of extra moisture and tends to get stripped by normal shampoos, you might want to consider washing your hair with conditioner instead. Co-washing may benefit and maintain the health of your hair, but only when done right. Using your favorite conditioner works on occasion, however, we want you to consider a few more options for your co-washing routine.
To get the details on some common mistakes to avoid while co-washing your curls, we spoke to natural hair experts Faye Whiteman and Faith Huffnagle. Here, they will share tips and product recommendations that make for an optimal co-washing experience.
Meet the Expert
- Faye Whiteman is a Las Vegas-based hairstylist and amika: lead pro educator.
- Faith Huffnagle is the director of education at Prose.
What Is Co-Washing?
Co-washing, or conditioner washing, is a recommended cleansing alternative to harsh shampoos because it cleans hair while maintaining the natural oils that keep hair hydrated.
Using a Conditioner to Co-Wash
You may have heard that co-washing your curls with conditioner is the way to go, but Huffnagle, wants you to rethink that strategy. "Using a conditioner to co-wash instead of an actual co-wash is one of the biggest mistakes naturals make," says Huffnagle. "Co-washing will cleanse the scalp in a way that conditioner cannot on its own, as long as you focus your fingertips [on massaging] the scalp and [rinsing] thoroughly."
Exclusively Co-Washing After Using Oil-Heavy Products
Co-washing works best if you stick to lightweight products that don't include heavy oils as part of their makeup. It's tough to completely wash away petroleum-based products without a foaming agent like sodium lauryl or, preferably, sodium laureth sulfate (found in traditional shampoos). Your hair may feel clean for a while if you only co-wash while using these products, but over time, the buildup will get worse. If you're committed to co-washing, use more water-based products that are easier to wash away without the need for drying suds.
Not Adding a Detox Hair Mask To Your Wash Day Routine
If you haven't tried a detox hair mask, you should put it on your products to try list for when it's time to replace your empties. Huffnagle recommends looking for a mask with bamboo charcoal and wintergreen extract. "A gentle detox hair mask [can] remove some of the oil and creams (and silicones) that can buildup on the scalp and hair overtime," she says, adding that this can be done once for those who don't like to use shampoo often.
Co-Washing With a Heavy Product
In order to clean your hair without making it greasy or weighed down, it's important to look for a light conditioner or a conditioner made for co-washing. Look for a 2-in-1 co-wash conditioner but don't trash that heavy conditioner. Simply save it for those times you use shampoo and need an after-cleansing treat.
Ignoring Your Scalp
While one of the main purposes of conditioner washing is to provide a gentle cleansing method for your hair, don't forget about your scalp. It's important to rub your scalp thoroughly to loosen and remove dirt, grime, and buildup. "There are many co-washes on the market, so finding one that really focuses on ensuring your scalp is clean is key," says Huffnagle. Whether you alternate co-washes with shampoos or you only co-wash, spend a little more time rubbing your scalp than you do on your hair. Remember: good hair growth begins with a clean and healthy scalp, so make that the focus of each cleansing session.
Using Heavy Styling Products
"If you are using products that contain heavy oils or petroleum-based ingredients and you only co-wash your hair, over time there will be a significant amount of buildup," says Whiteman, "In order to avoid that, choose lightweight [petrolatum-free] products.”
Not Detangling Thoroughly
There's little point in cleansing your hair if you do an incomplete job of it. Part of cleansing and conditioning is detangling. Your hair products work much better and deliver more even results when they reach all of your strands. Tangled hair will not only look less than stellar in its final style, it won't get all the benefits of the products you put on it. Hair that's saturated with conditioner is in prime detangling condition, whether you use your fingers, a comb, or detangling brush.
Using Ingredients That Don't Work for Your Hair
Even the best ingredients don't work the same across all heads of hair. If you find your conditioner isn't delivering the results you want, look at what's in it. You might be able to easily identify the ingredient your hair doesn't like; other times, it may be near impossible. Bottom line: If the product isn't working for you, move on to something that does.
Not Rinsing Completely
Some women purposely don't rinse all of their conditioner out to keep it hydrated throughout the day, but if this isn't for you, be sure and thoroughly rinse after your co-wash. Otherwise, you run the risk of buildup. Also, some conditioners leave a filmy mask if not rinsed well, and this can interfere with styling products. Your water should run clear, but you should still have a good amount of slip on your hair.
Not Having a Clarifying Shampoo in Rotation
"Co-washing is an alternative to harsh shampoos because it cleanses the hair while maintaining some of the hair's natural oils," says Whiteman. However, removing buildup should always be a priority, especially for those with oiler hair types and heavy product users. If you are a heavy product user, be sure to have a clarifying shampoo on hand to bust that buildup.
Gavazzoni Dias MFR. Pro and contra of cleansing conditioners. Skin Appendage Disord. 2019;5(3):131-134. doi:10.1159/000493588