Thoughts On Co-Washing

Written on: Mar 23, 2018
By: Shari Hicks-Graham

Let’s talk about co-washing. This technique has experienced a rise in popularity commensurate with that of the natural hair movement. The two are made for each other! Most of you reading this blog likely already know what co-washing is but here’s a quick definition just in case: the process of “washing” your hair solely using conditioner rather than shampoo.  It works well on natural hair because it detangles and moisturizes, leaving hair looking & feeling revitalized. Conditioners made explicitly for this process are sometimes called, “no poos” (no shampoo).

Here’s the question, does conditioner alone have the capacity to wash the scalp and hair if it doesn’t have true cleansing ingredients like a shampoo?

That’s a valid question! Let me first say that the primary purpose of a hair conditioner is exactly what you would condition hair. Not cleanse. Conditioners help tremendously with improving the manageability of hair. The right conditioner can soften and detangle hair while helping your strands retain/absorb moisture. Conditioners can also add luster to improve the appearance of your hair. Notice all the benefits seem to be for your hair, but what about your scalp?

Unfortunately, the scalp largely gets neglected with a strict co-washing regimen. However, some conditioners have been developed specifically to be used as a co-wash. These “no poos” may have some very mild detergents or surfactants that help cleanse the scalp in a minor way. This may be sufficient for some people for a limited period of time but if you have oily hair and an oily scalp, co-washing is not likely going to be a good practice for you. In fact, co-washing may create scalp irritation or worsen an existing scalp issue.  Dry scalp may also be a manifestation of a yeast overgrowth that can be exacerbated by the sole use of co-wash products.

How can you tell if co-washing is causing problems for my scalp or hair?

An unintended consequence of exclusive co-washing is product build up.  This may create issues at the follicle level and also place undesirable weight on your strands. Some of us experience clogged pores or issues at follicle level, like folliculitis.  This can cause painful bumps that can cause scarring if not managed properly.  Also, if your hair seems flat or heavy, it could be product build-up that is weighing it down.

To be clear, co-washing is not a bad practice for everyone. It is quite beneficial for many of us with textured hair because we need to maintain that moisture in between washing.  The proper frequency for washing one’s hair is determined on an individual basis and depends on the texture of your hair, your existing scalp condition, the climate in which you live, and how physically active you are among other variables. Finding the right shampoo/co-wash cadence likely requires trial and error but we believe most people with textured hair should shampoo one or two times per week to maintain a healthy scalp.

My scalp is not in great shape right now, what should I do?

If you have seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, or any other scalp ailment, it may be necessary to reduce the frequency of your co-washing regimen or cease the practice entirely. You may need to cleanse your scalp more frequently with a gentle, sulfate-free shampoo in order to help your scalp get back into balance. Overactive sebaceous glands cause an excessively oily scalp, which may accumulate with flaky scalp and form yellow-ish scale.  A harsh surfactant-laden shampoo without rich conditioners may combat the oiliness but may overreach and dry out your scalp, causing itchiness, which may lead to frequent scratching and possibly follicle damage.  Your hair may also become dry as a result of the dry scalp. Additionally, persistent dry scalp could cause those sebaceous glands to kick into overdrive, inadvertently worsening the original problem. It’s easy to see how this balancing act between washing and conditioning can be difficult and frustrating to manage.

So here are the three key takeaways about co-washing;

  1. Co-washing is a useful tactic in keeping your textured hair looking moisturized and well-defined.
  2. Co-washing is not a good practice for everyone all of the time.  If you have scalp issues like seborrheic dermatitis, you need to cleanse your scalp regularly to prevent build-up that can occur with co-washing alone.
  3. Even if you have a healthy scalp, we recommend intermittent use of a sulfate-free shampoo to maintain your scalp and hair.  Generally, cleansing the hair and scalp once or twice per week, alternating between a true shampoo and co-washing (if desired) is recommended.  

Live Free & Clear,

Dr. Shari Hicks-Graham