Co-washing (aka conditioner washing) means using conditioner to wash your hair, rather than shampoo. Some people argue that regular shampooing dries their hair out, especially curly hair. As a very dry-haired person myself (wavy and bleached), I was very curious to give conditioner washing a go.
Co-washing is recommended for medium to coarse, wavy and curly hair types. The scalp’s natural oils have a harder time navigating the twists and turns of wavy and curly textured hair. It’s not recommended for super fine or straight hair, as these hair types get greasy more easily. If you do have super fine hair, you might want to try reverse washing instead.
How co-washing works
Shampoos clean hair because they have surfactants (detergents) in them which lift dirt and oil from the strands, allowing you can rinse them away with water. Conditioners also contain surfactants but they are slightly different ones that don’t produce any foam. They do still remove dirt, just not as much as shampoo does. Conditioners also usually have an oil ingredient in them. Just like cleansing oils for your face, the idea is that oil dissolves oil. With conditioner, the oil doesn’t completely rinse away with the water. So, conditioner won’t do a ‘deep cleanse’ but it won’t completely strip the hair of oil either. Which is good news for dry hair.
Why dry hair loves co-washing
My hair is cut short and I have a massive undercut because it’s so thick. The top half is bleached which makes it feel even thicker. I like to change the colour a lot with Crazy Colour so it needs to be bleached to do this. My roots don’t get particularly greasy. My hair’s texture is wavy but it’s the type of kinky wavy that looks a bit mad if left to it’s own devices (IMHO), so I prefer it to be on the straight side. Sometimes the front goes into nice finger-waves under the right (rather elusive) conditions, which I don’t mind at all.
At the moment I’m thinking of growing it a bit, so I’m trying to look after it while it grows. Which means not using my straighteners as much. It’s summer just now so the less blowdrying the better. Since I’ve been experimenting with co-washing I can get away with slicking my hair back wet, letting it air dry and then tousling it up once its bone dry. It dries straight(ish) with just enough volume. Co-washing and air drying are definitely making my hair easier to live with at the moment, and my colour isn’t needing to be topped up quite so often.
The co-washing process so far
I’ve been experimenting for about 6 weeks. I read that it usually takes about two weeks to get used to the feeling of having ‘not properly washed’ hair. For me, I didn’t feel really gross but it might just be because my hair is so short and was mostly slicked back.
Before the experiment I was mostly shampooing my hair every other day – just rinsing or leaving it on the in-between days. I decided to try a similar routine but to alternate conditioner with shampoo on the wash days. So the pattern was:
Day 1. shampoo Day 2. leave Day 3. co-wash Day 4. leave Day 5. shampoo Day 6. leave Day 7. co-wash
When I use shampoo, even a mild sulfate free shampoo, my hair immediately goes into tangled mess of knots. But when you swap shampoo for conditioner, this doesn’t happen! I would fully wet my hair, use a big dollop of Light Conditioner all over my hair and scalp and massage it in as if shampooing, then rinse. No knots. On shampoo days I’d use some Treatment Conditioner and leave it on for a few minutes before rinsing, as per usual.
Usually, the day after shampoo day, my hair is super springy like a mad professor’s. I have to wet it down or do something to control it. But after co-washing days I realised it would look a lot less like a Trolls in the morning and I could get away with not having to wet my hair down at all. So I kind of started to play around with mixing the days up, having more co-wash days and leave-it-alone days. I found myself shampooing less frequently and co-washing tactfully, trying to avoid puffy hair as much as possible.
I think over the 6 weeks I washed my hair about 4 or 5 times with shampoo (I lost count in the end). The times I did shampoo, my hair had got to the point where I felt it really needed a good wash. I think I used dry shampoo about 4 times in my fringe when I wanted it to quiff up and my roots were visible. Co-washing worked well for a good few days but any longer the oil did build up and make my roots greasy. Overall though, my hair felt much softer the less I shampooed it.
There will be times when you need shampoo
I went camping one weekend and came back with seriously stinky campfire hair. I was also wearing a hat most of the time which did make my roots more greasy than usual (is that a thing?). So upon my return I shampooed.
The times that shampooing will be necessary:
1. you’ve been in a very smoky or stinky place
2. you’ve been wearing a hat
3. you’ve been swimming in chlorine
4. you’ve been using a lot of styling products (especially ones with silicones) including dry shampoo
5. you’ve been in really humid weather (scalps produce more oil in high humidity)
6. you’re super stressed (also increases the amount of oil you produce).
When you do shampoo, always use a sulfate free shampoo as they are milder than the others. They don’t strip the hair completely of oil which means your scalp isn’t forced to produce even more. This regulates the amount of oil your scalp produces over time.
The conclusion to my co-washing adventure
Like I said, it’s only been 6 weeks and it’s summertime so co-washing has really worked out for me and my unruly hair so far. So much happier and harmonious without so much shampooing.
If I’m honest my hair doesn’t feel ‘squeaky clean’ unless I use shampoo. But I’m *more* than happy to trade that off for hair that I can manage and doesn’t feel so rough. It is all a matter of personal taste and every scalp and head of hair is different so I definitely think that co-washing needs trial and error at first. Give it a couple of weeks to get used to it and get in tune with how your hair feels and behaves.
Fancy trying it?
If shampoo is making your hair do weird things and you’re tempted to try co-washing, I’d recommend using Light Conditioner. It’s has light oils in it (fractionated coconut oil, rice bran oil and camellia oil) so it will be cleansing. The essential oils in it will make your hair more fragrant. It also has wheat protein, pro-vitamin B5 and aloe vera so it will strengthen and moisturise, too. It contains no silicones so won’t leave behind any residue, and it rinses out very easily. Give it a whirl!