Co-washing, a popular suds-free method for cleansing hair, might just put an end to dry, frizzy locks. Here's what co-washing means and whether or not you should test it yourself.

By Real Simple Editors
Updated January 03, 2020
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What does co-wash mean in the world of hair care? Co-washing is short for “conditioner-only washing.” It means skipping shampoo and relying solely on conditioner, whether you’re a daily or a weekly washer. The result of co-washing hair falls somewhere between squeaky-clean and second-day hair—that is, you'll be dealing with smoother, softer, and easier-to-manage locks, especially if you've got a head of curls or waves. A fringe benefit of the co-wash method? You’ll save shower space, as well as some time and money.

What Is Co-Washing, and Should You Try It?

Waves and Curls

Not sure if you should completely ditch your shampoo for conditioner-only cleansing? If your hair is dry, or it’s curly or wavy (both of which tend to be naturally dry), chances are you’ll benefit from co-washing. In fact, legions of ringleted women have been washing with conditioner alone for years. But what exactly are the benefits?

Most conditioners contain trace amounts of detergents called cationic surfactants, or “quats” for short. (Some common types that you can find on your conditioner’s ingredient list are cetrimonium and behentrimonium chloride.) When mixed with water, the quats pick up tiny amounts of dirt, leaving unshampooed hair feeling clean, but not too clean (a common beauty mistake to avoid). At the same time, the conditioner contains, well, conditioners. “Since unshampooed hair retains more of its natural oils than shampooed hair, the conditioner’s moisturizing agents will now leave strands even smoother and silkier than usual,” says Nicole Tresch, a senior colorist at the Rita Hazan Salon in New York City.

Color-Processed Hair

Assuming that they have healthy scalps, women with color-processed hair are also prime candidates for co-washing, as it allows them to go longer between salon treatments. “Co-washing doesn’t strip strands of pigment the way traditional cleansing can,” says Los Angeles hairstylist Jen Atkin.

Who Should Skip Co-Washing?

People with fine, straight hair, which could get weighed down. Those with an oily scalp or dermatitis should steer clear, too. “Co-washing alone doesn’t effectively treat either condition,” says Jeannette Graf, MD, a New York City dermatologist. Stick with your regular shampoo-then-condition routine.

Choosing the Right Conditioner

If your hair is on the thicker side, the daily conditioner that’s already sitting in your shower may be all that you need. Just avoid conditioners with silicones, such as dimethicone, in the ingredient list. These are often added to conventional conditioners to smooth hair. But if you don’t shampoo daily, they can build up and weigh down your strands.

If your hair isn’t as thick, you may do better with a product specifically designed for co-washing, called cleansing conditioners. These contain more cleanser than typical conditioners do, but in the form of natural ingredients (like aloe vera), which remove grit more gently. Here are a few cleansing conditioners to try:

  • Ouidad Curl Immersion Co-Wash, from $36; ouidad.com
  • Christophe Robin Cleansing Mask With Lemon; $49, sephora.com
  • L’Oreal Paris Evercreme Cleansing Conditioner; $25, amazon.com

How to Co-Wash Hair

Eliminating shampoo from your hair-washing routine requires adjustments to how you rinse and condition your hair. Here are step-by-step directions for a smooth transition.

1. Fully saturate your hair with water. The strands should be sopping wet. Think of it like soaking a dirty pot. The water loosens the debris, making it easier to rinse out eventually. This also helps distribute the product evenly throughout the hair.

2. Squeeze out a healthy amount of conditioner. Forget dime-size and quarter-size dollops. “You need to use enough to coat strands from root to tip,” says Miko Branch, a cofounder and the creative director of haircare line Miss Jessie’s. For some people, this can mean using as much as a golf ball-size amount. This may seem like a lot, but don’t forget that you’re cleansing, not just conditioning.

RELATED: 3 Things to Do (and 5 Things Not to Do) to Make Your Hair Grow Faster

3. Massage the conditioner into the scalp and distribute evenly through the ends. “This will help break down oils and any residue left over from styling products,” says Chaz Dean, founder of WEN, one of the first haircare lines to offer cleansing conditioners. Then allow the conditioner to be absorbed for three to five minutes. If your hair is particularly dry or damaged, leave it in longer. “It will act like a mask,” says Dean. Now rinse, dry, and style as usual. Bonus: You may discover that you need less styling product, since the hair is less parched and more responsive.

4. Use a clarifying shampoo once every two to four weeks. Buildup—from sweat, stylers, or conditioner—is inevitable, regardless of whether you shampoo or co-wash. Experiment with how frequently you need to clarify your hair. In general, a once-a-month or twice-a-month wash will cure dullness without drying. If your hair still feels weighed down after biweekly clarifying, alternate as needed between co-washing and shampooing. This should yield the benefits of co-washing but with more volume.