I Committed To Co-Washing My Hair For A Month — Here's What I Wish I'd Known
Despite the many misnomers that seem to make sense for the word "co-washing," it's a beauty term used to describe the process of washing hair with conditioner instead of shampoo in order to improve its health and vitality. If skipping shampoo and replacing it with conditioner sounds like a hot, greasy oil slick to you, you're not alone. This is one of the chief concerns of co-washing, but when done with proper technique and product designed specifically for co-washing, can be avoided. Plus, the benefits of co-washing have been touted as a way to help strands recover from heat and color damage, pollution, and daily stressors restoring the natural shine and body of the hair.
Co-washing benefits explained.
Here's the deal: Most shampoos—yes, even the natural ones—contain detergents that strip the scalp of its natural oils to give you that "squeaky clean" feeling. Not all detergents are bad, by the way! But too much of a good thing can disrupt your skin, your scalp, and your hair's natural rhythms. Once oil is removed from a scalp, it sends a signal that it needs to produce more oils! Albeit logical, your scalp's response to frequent washing begets a greasy mop.
Oily scalp, heat damage, and/or otherwise sensitive strands are exactly why good hairstylists encourage less hair washing and more dry styling. The less washing it endures, the fewer oils it has to make. Slowly but surely, the natural oils in your hair achieve a balance, allowing your strands to be nourished, shaped, and styled. It's a win-win.
When should you co-wash?
Co-washing takes this no-washing idea to the next level. Also often called "no-poo," it keeps your hair and scalp from being exposed to sudsy detergents at all, cleansing them without stripping the natural oils away. I wanted to try co-washing for a few reasons. First and foremost, I was interested to see how it would change my scalp. I tend to have a problematic scalp (details on that below) and am always attempting new, gentle ways to break through the buildup.
I'm also interested in learning how to let my hair dry naturally. If you're a recovering heat-styler too, you understand. For years I blow-dried my hair because I could never trust it to dry without heat predictably. Some days it would be a frizzy, knotty mess; others it would be limp and stuck to the sides of my head, and/or some combination of the two. There's nothing wrong with this outcome per se, but I'd like to find out what my hair needs to have a little more boost. I'd love to allow it to dry naturally more often to save time, money, and energy, especially as the summer season approaches. Dealing with a blow dryer in East Coast humidity is an uphill battle that I'm no longer interested in participating in!
How to co-wash your hair:
- Wet your hair and rinse it thoroughly before applying any product.
- You need a lot of product for a successful co-wash! (This is a definite co-washing drawback, in my book.) Now is not the time to be conservative. Depending on how thick your hair is, you may need to fill your palm with product. I needed two to three half-dollar dollops for fine, shoulder-length hair. It's not a regular conditioner, so don't be scared! It won't cake down your roots.
- Spend two to three minutes working the product into your scalp. When you're done, use a brush, and comb it through your ends.
- This step is where most people go wrong. Rinse, rinse, rinse, and rinse again, especially when you think you're done rinsing. It'll probably feel like you're massaging nothing into your scalp—that's okay! There won't be much of a lather or an oily feeling. Feel free to duck your head into the shower stream once or twice while you're massaging to help distribute the product.
- Brush your hair once when it's wet, but then resist once it's dry. This helps your scalp's natural oils to shape your curls. Don't be frightened - the first few times might be a bit unruly, but you'll get there.
My co-washing experiment was a huge success for my hair. But my scalp? Not so much.
I used New Wash Hairstory's co-washing starter kit and unexpectedly loved the scalp tool that came with it. In fact, I use that every time I condition my hair now, whether it's with New Wash or not! There are also options available on Amazon.
From Day 1 of co-washing, I noticed a huge difference in how my hair felt, specifically its texture and the movement. I have fine hair—a lot of it—that's wavy and typically pretty frizzy. Instead of the unpredictability that always seemed to take over when drying my hair naturally, co-washing made it predictable! It solved the biggest problem I had after giving up heat styling. On the same day as a wash, I have curly waves that didn't look overly styled or frizzy from natural drying—they fall somewhere in the middle. My favorite hair days are Day 2 and beyond because the "hold" of the curl never actually left my hair. I don't brush it daily, only after the shower, but would run through it with my fingers and style loosely with a salt spray, texturizing spray, or dry shampoo as needed in the morning. My hair maintained a hold, volume, and shape that it never had before! This was revolutionary.
The downside was how consecutive co-washing made my scalp feel. As I mentioned, I have scalp issues, but my deep dives into internet chat rooms, reviews, and experiments highlighting co-washing lead me to believe that it would be beneficial for my problem scalp. For me, this was unfortunately not the case. I stuck it out, but with each passing co-wash, the buildup on my scalp became a little thicker and flakier. I have a condition called seborrheic dermatitis, which, according to Alan Dattner, M.D.’s book on skin and natural health and beauty, is a sign of systemic candida overgrowth. So take this feedback with a grain of salt! If you don't have seborrheic dermatitis, your scalp very well may hold up to co-washing, and it's quite possible you'll benefit.
Now I co-wash twice a week and wash with shampoo (my current favorite is Ursa Major) once. It's the perfect balance for my scalp—it's never felt better—and my frizz is tame, and my hair is finally returning to its natural state.
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Lindsay Kellner is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist based out of Brooklyn, NY. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and psychology at New York University and earned a 200-hour yoga certification from Sky Ting. She is the co-author of “The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide to Ancient Self Care,” along with mbg’s Sustainability Editor, Emma Loewe.