If you’ve started embracing your natural hair and delved into the world of CG, you’ve probably heard the term co-wash or co-washing. While co-washing is a widely-used method in CG haircare, it can actually be beneficial to practically any hair pattern and texture. The idea behind co-washing is simple – retain as much of your hair’s natural moisture as possible while still keeping it clean. This is done by using a conditioner (or a specially formulated co-washing conditioner) instead of a shampoo to wash and clean your hair. The end result is softer, healthier, and more nourished hair that is less prone to dullness, breakage, and frizz.
Think that co-washing could be right for you? Keep reading to learn what co-washing is, how to co-wash, and decide if co-washing could be right for you.
As explained above, co-washing is the use of conditioner in place of shampoo to wash and clean the hair. Regular shampoos rely on relatively harsh surfactants such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate (often abbreviated as SLS) to create that satisfying lather and remove dirt from your hair. When washed out, the lather carries away dirt, product, and grime, but it also removes almost all of your hair’s natural oils in the process. This results in that “squeaky clean” feeling we’ve all grown accustomed to, and what we’ve been conditioned to equate with truly clean hair. Unfortunately, however, this feeling is neither beneficial to your curls nor necessarily cleaner than gentler methods. The fact is that your hair doesn’t need to be completely stripped of its natural oils to be clean, and removing them almost entirely with shampoo can result in brittle, dry, and dull hair, especially for curlies.
So what to do? Many curlies opt for a co-washing routine, sometimes combined with a low or no poo routine, to clean their hair. Co-washing cleanses the hair gently and without stripping away all of its natural oils, leaving you with hair that is clean and soft minus all the frizz and damage.
Contrary to popular belief, conditioners do more than just condition – they actually have mild cleansing properties too. Their cleansing power comes from small amounts of cationic surfactants known as quats, which have the ability to gently clean the hair when used in conjunction with manual scrubbing. In addition to these quats, conditioners also condition of course – they add moisture and nourish the hair.
This dual benefit from co-washing – both mild cleansing and hydration – is the key to why co-washing works so well to nurture your hair while also keeping it clean.
While many curlies will use their usual CG-friendly conditioner, there are specially formulated conditioners that are specially designed to work as a co-wash. Some curlies prefer a specially formulated co-washing product, but it is certainly not necessary, especially if you are just taking your first steps on your CG journey.
Whether you’re using a specially formulated co-wash or your regular conditioner, it is important to treat co-washing as a separate and distinct step from your detangling and squish to condish steps. Co-washing should come first, followed by detangling, and finally squish to condish.
Before applying any conditioner to begin your co-wash, make sure that your hair is thoroughly soaked through, from root to tip. Next, apply a generous amount of conditioner to your scalp in sections, making sure that your scalp is sufficiently covered. Once your conditioner has been applied, begin scrubbing your scalp using the pads of your fingers (no nails!), working from the front of your head backwards. If necessary, add small amounts of water with your hands as you go. Remember that your conditioner will not lather like shampoo would, no matter how much you scrub. That said, make sure you scrub thoroughly, as the scrubbing motion is important to make your co-wash effective.
Once you’ve finished scrubbing your scalp, it’s time to rinse out the co-wash. Flip your hair forward, and rinse out the conditioner completely. Your hair, and particularly your scalp, should feel clean and refreshed, and you can now proceed to detangling your curls.
How often you should co-wash is very personal, and depends very much on your hair’s characteristics, the climate you live in, and your particular lifestyle. As a general rule of thumb, you should only wash your hair, co-wash or otherwise, as needed. More frequent washing can be unnecessarily rough on your hair, without providing any real benefit. If you find yourself having to wash more frequently than your hair likes, consider a pre-poo before washing.