Co-washing is all the rage in hair care right now, but what does it even mean? The name makes it sound like you’re, well, showering with a friend, but it goes without saying that its actual meaning is much, much different (and a little less sexy). Lest you embarrass yourself with cluelessness as the craze gets even crazier, we’re here to demystify co-washing once and for all.
What is co-washing? “Co-washing” is the abbreviated term for “conditioner washing,” which is exactly what it sounds like—it’s a method of cleansing your hair with conditioner instead of shampoo. Originally intended for use by those with naturally curly or textured hair, the co-washing community has since broadened to include many different hair types, though it’s still particularly favored by the curly-haired. Shampoo uses surfactants to create that squeaky-clean lather, and while conditioner also contains surfactants, it’s formulated with significantly less.
What are the benefits? The purpose of co-washing is to preserve the natural oils of the hair while still gently cleansing, allowing for better hydration for super-dry and frizzy hair types and less color stripping for colored hair. The goal is to make hair healthier overall, with less of the stripping-replenishing cycle that washing then conditioning creates. People who co-wash often attest to a few days or weeks of greasiness before the hair and scalp balances itself and regains a clean look.
Who should be doing it? Dry, dehydrated and damaged hair types find great success with co-washing, as do those with textured natural hair. Somewhat more important than who should be doing it is who shouldn’t be doing it: Anyone with naturally fine or oily hair and anyone who lives in a highly polluted environment or is often exposed to a lot of dust or dirt. Shampoo and conditioner both contain surfactants, but while those found in shampoo are meant to wash oil and dirt from the surface, those found in conditioner are intended to cling to the hair, so co-washing has the potential to draw more environmental dirt into the hair. For the fine-haired, unless your hair is extremely dry or damaged, co-washing will simply weigh the hair down.
How do I start co-washing? Many people say that the trick to co-washing is to shampoo your hair every once in a while. Straight-up co-washing sans any shampoo whatsoever is beneficial mainly to the extremely dry-haired, while the rest of us can get away with shampooing once a week and sticking to co-washing the rest of the time.
With that said, the best way to start is with an inexpensive, lightweight drugstore conditioner: Co-washing requires a lot of product, so you’re not going to want to use the fancy stuff as your co-wash. Use a generous amount of something like VO5Herbal Escapes Clarifying Conditioner ($1.19, cvs.com), rubbing it into your scalp as you would shampoo, then rinse and repeat. If you really want to invest in co-washing, then try a cleansing conditioner that’s formulated for that purpose, like theWEN by Chaz Dean line or the new Ojon Rare Blend Moisture Rich Cleansing Conditioner ($27, ojon.com). These products are made to cleanse while they condition, so they’re less likely to cause buildup and more likely to be suitable for everyday use.