This Is the Real Difference Between Co-Wash and Conditioner, According to Natural Hair Experts

Close-up of woman with curly hair

 Imaxtree

Natural hair—specifically coarse, curly natural hair—is generally dryer than all other hair textures. But co-washing is here to save the day. It's a great habit to help retain moisture and strengthen your hair shafts. Not sure what exactly co-washing is? It's not exactly the same as conditioning your strands. We reached out to two curl and natural hair experts to give us the lowdown on this cleansing method that'll bring the bounce back to your curls. Senior stylist Mia Emilio of Devachan Salon in NYC and Jamyla Bennu, creator of haircare line Oyin Handmade, cracked the code on co-washing. Keep scrolling for our expert-approved guide to co-washing for natural hair.

Meet the Expert

  • Mia Emilio is the master stylist at Devachan Salon in NYC. She focuses on enhancing hair's natural texture and empowering women to embrace their curls.
  • Jamyla Bennu is the creator of natural haircare line Oyin Handmade. The company is located in Baltimore, Maryland and focuses on embracing natural hair texture.

What Is Co-Washing?

"A co-wash is the use of a specially formulated cream cleanser to remove buildup and cleanse the hair without the lathering or harsh ingredients, such as sulfates or parabens, typically used in shampoos," explains Bennu. "Co-washing is using conditioner to wash and cleanse your hair," says Emilio.

The Benefits of Co-Washing

According to Emilio, "Many people choose to co-wash because of the benefits of ditching shampoo, which is loaded with sulfates that strip curly hair of natural oils and can create frizz, dryness, and possible breakage. When you co-wash, you're scrubbing your scalp with conditioner as if it were shampoo. You're still cleaning the scalp to remove any dirt or residue because of the friction of your scrubbing. The main benefit is that you'll have really hydrated your hair during the cleansing process."

The process is especially good for those with "textured and natural hair, because it does not strip hair and scalp of natural oils, so your hair remains stronger and healthier with better moisture retention and less breakage," notes Bennu.

The Drawbacks

While co-washing can be totally game-changing or those with thick, course curls, there can be downsides, the number one being the risk of product build-up on the scalp. This can cause scalp itchiness and irritation, as well as an oily and/or flat appearance to the hair. It's a good idea to counteract this with a scalp scrub or a product like DevaCurl Buildup Buster Micellar Water Cleansing Serum ($28) about once a week, depending on how often you wash your hair.

How to Co-Wash Natural Hair

  1. Apply first round of conditioner.
  2. Scrub the scalp. "Remember the friction and scrubbing motion is what's actually removing dirt and grime from your scalp. Without friction, you're not cleaning anything," Emilio advises.
  3. Rinse the hair completely.
  4. Apply a second round of conditioner. "Start at your ends and work your way up to the mid-shaft of the hair," says Emilio. "This is to detangle but also to condition your strands; this round of conditioner does not need to be applied to your scalp."
  5. Rinse until no product remains on the hair.
  6. Repeat two to three times per week. "Some curl types can go a little longer without co-washing, and some curl types co-wash daily," says Emilio. "If your hair is highly dehydrated, more co-washing is better than less. Wetting and conditioning your hair won't harm it. The old wives' tale of not wetting your hair daily is really because of the negative effects of using shampoo daily."

Co-Wash vs. Conditioner: What’s the Difference?

Co-washing and conditioning are similar, but not identical. "Conditioning is about moisture, detangling, and pliability," Bennu explains. "Protein-rich conditioners are also about strengthening or repairing damage. Cleansing conditioners have special cleansing ingredients that gently cleanse and remove product buildup, leaving you with a soft and clean feeling. It's also a huge time-saver because you're cleansing and conditioning in one step."

So, while a co-wash can replace a conditioner in your routine, you can't co-wash with any old conditioner or you'll run the risk of not properly cleansing the hair, which may result in product buildup, scalp discomfort, and general greasiness. Look for products explicitly labeled as cleansing conditioners or co-washes.

Shop Our Favorite Cleansing Conditioners

One Condition Original Daily Cream Conditioner
DevaCurl One Condition Original Daily Cream Conditioner $24
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"My favorite is DevaCurl's One Condition," says Emilio. "I’ve been using it for the past 13 years. I’m actually a huge believer in co-washing because that’s what I do. I usually co-wash with this every three days per style and repeat. My scalp is clean and my curls are full and bouncy. Shampoo has not touched my head in 13 years. When looking for a conditioner make sure it’s alcohol and silicone-free—these ingredients will weigh your hair down and dry out your curls. Make sure your conditioner has natural cleansing ingredients like lavender, rosemary, lemongrass, or even an apple cider vinegar mixture."

Oyin Ginger Mint Co-Wash $12
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"[Oyin Ginger Mint Co-Wash] dissolves product buildup with gentle sulfate-free surfactants, protects, and maintains moisture balance," explains Bennu. "It also detangles like a dream. The peppermint, ginger, and green tea extracts really tone and stimulate the scalp. It's truly a one-step solution for clean, soft, and moisturized hair."

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