Co-Wash Vs Shampoo: Which Is Better?

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If you have naturally curly hair, you may have heard about co-washing, or washing your hair using only conditioner.

A woman is washing her hair with shampoo in a shower.

And with all the good things you’re hearing, you’re bound to try it sooner or later.

But if you’re having second thoughts, we totally understand. After all, we grew up using the traditional shampoo + conditioner combo in our hair-washing routine.

You’re used to shampoo cleaning your hair, and now the natural hair community says conditioner can do it too.

That’s why there’s a battle in your brain: co-wash vs shampoo.

Does co-wash replace shampoo? Will it really make your hair healthier?

We’re here to give you the answer.

Continue reading to discover the benefits of both shampoo and conditioner, plus their potential unwanted effects of both on your hair.

Co-Wash vs Shampoo

In the battle of hair washing, who will win? Is it the hair-softening co-wash or the scalp-refreshing shampoo?

Here’s a quick view of their differences:

ShampooCo-Wash
PurposeIt cleanses the hair by removing oil, dirt, and buildup.It mildly washes away dirt and adds moisture to the hair.
Essential BenefitsCleans hair, grease prevention, no weigh-downHydrated hair, better curl definition, fewer need for products
Best ForStraight, fine, medium-porosity hairThick, curly, high-porosity hair

What Is the Difference Between Co-Wash and Shampoo?

The shampoo is for cleaning the hair, while the co-wash is for moisturizing.

Cleansing shampoo removes excess oil, flakes, environmental dust, and product residues — everything that co-wash cannot eliminate.

On the other hand, co-wash leaves conditioning agents on the strands, making them soft and smooth — something that shampoo can’t do.

But how exactly do shampoo and conditioners do that? Let’s see.

Surfactants

Both poo and co-wash contain surfactants. These chemicals do the cleaning action.

They’re called surfactants because they work on the surface of what you are cleaning. In this case, your hair. There are four types of surfactants:

Anionic

These can lift and remove a broad range of dirt. However, they are not good at emulsifying oils.

They also create a lot of foam when mixed.

These are the reasons why anionics are frequently used in soaps and detergents.

Examples of Anionic Surfactants Used in Shampoo

  • Ammonium laureth sulfate
  • Sodium laureth sulfate
  • Ammonium lauryl sulfate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate

These surfactants are mostly to blame for stripping off hair moisture.

Non-ionic

These surfactants are really good at both emulsifying oils and removing dirt.

Some non-ionics are often not included in shampoos anymore because they can make your hair extremely dry and can even cause scalp irritation.

In some shampoos, however, there are milder non-ionics that are milder than anionic surfactants and only act as secondary surfactants by thickening the lather.

Examples of Non-ionic Surfactants Used in Shampoo

  • Cocamide MEA
  • Ethoxylated alkyl phenols
  • Ethoxylated fatty alcohols
  • Polyglycerol ether
  • Sorbitol esters

Amphoteric

Shampoos and cosmetics often have amphoteric surfactants. They are so mild that baby shampoos are made of them.

They only help improve the lather and thickness of the shampoo.

Examples of Amphoteric Surfactants Used in Shampoo

  • Acetic acid
  • Betaines
  • N-alkyl amino acids

Cationic

Conditioners contain cationic surfactants. These cling to wet surfaces by static attraction. As they do, they smooth the strands and make them softer.

The most common cationic is polyquaternium-10, but there are other cationic surfactants used in conditioners.

Examples of Cationic Surfactants Used in Conditioners

  • Cetrimonium chloride
  • Cetyl alcohol
  • Stearamidopropyl dimethylamine

By understanding surfactants, we can also understand how shampoo and conditioner work.

Note that shampoos may contain anionic, non-ionic, or amphoteric surfactants that work as cleansing agents.

On the other hand, conditioners mostly contain cationic surfactants that will not strip the hair’s and scalp’s oil. But this also means that they are not effective in removing dirt.

How Does Shampoo Cleanse Your Hair?

A woman closing her eyes, taking a bath while applying shampoo to her hair

As we’ve explained above, surfactants are what make shampoo work as a foaming cleansing product.

The surfactants dissolve the impurities in the hair. And once broken down, they can be pulled into the water and washed off.

Examples of impurities in the hair are

  • dirt,
  • dust,
  • sweat,
  • dead skin cells,
  • product residues, and
  • sebum (natural oil)

After shampooing, the hair and scalp become clear and free of oil until it produces fresh new sebum. That’s how you reduce the chance of inflammation, flakes, itching, and odor.

Types of Shampoo

As technology progresses, hair product manufacturers have developed a lot of different shampoo formulas that cater to people with different hair types and cleanse hair in different ways.

Here are the common types of shampoo today.

  1. Regular Shampoo

Carefree people who don’t have specific hair needs (or so they think) use this type of shampoo. This is the most affordable shampoo you’ll normally see in supermarkets or drugstores.

This product is made for normal or oily hair, and it’s soap- and alkaline-free.

  1. Low Poo

A milder version of shampoo mostly used by people with wavy or curly hair.

A low poo doesn’t have harsh sulfates. It isn’t exactly sulfate-free though. Only the harshest SLS and SLES are removed.

That means a low poo still cleanses well but it’s not as drying as regular shampoos.

  1. Sulfate-Free Shampoo

Also called “no poo,” sulfate-free means what it says in its name. It is formulated with zero sulfates, the ingredients that lead to dry, frizzy hair.

This type of shampoo has a gentle formula that is mostly derived from plant extracts.

  1. Clarifying Shampoo

This product is used for deep cleansing of the hair and scalp. Its stronger formula will remove whatever tough grime your regular poo failed to wash away.

But because it’s stronger, it can be drying to your hair and scalp, so we don’t recommend using this every day. Once or twice a month will do.

  1. 2-in-1 Shampoo + Conditioner

This is designed to both cleanse and condition your locks in one step.

2-in-1 shampoos contain both cleaning and conditioning surfactants.

But according to scientists, the problem with this 2-in-1 product is when anionic and cationic surfactants are in the same formula.

That’s because when negatively charged anionics are mixed with positively charged cationics, they will no longer be effective.

To find out if your 2-in-1 shampoo has this problem, look for sulfates in the list of ingredients. If you see one, chances are, the conditioning agent won’t do its job well.

If there isn’t, then your product can condition your hair as well.

Is There a Shampoo That Cleanses Without Drying Out Your Hair?

While shampoo is great for keeping your scalp and locks clean, it can also cause a dry scalp and straw-like strands if used excessively.

The key to preventing this problem is to use a mild shampoo like Pureology Hydrate Shampoo. It’s sulfate-free and has added hydrating ingredients so it’s sure to replenish your dry hair.

Moreover, while it sounds nice to have squeaky clean hair every day, it actually isn’t. So wash your hair only once a week, or twice if you’re always exposed to dirt and sweat.

If you want to lessen your wash days, you can also use a dry shampoo.

Co-Washing for Curly Hair

A black-haired woman with curly hair taking a shower

In our skincare routines, we use a moisturizer after washing our face. Similarly, that’s what conditioners are for. We’re used to applying conditioner after shampoo to keep our hair soft.

So it must have come as a surprise when you heard that you can also use a conditioner to clean your locks.

What Is Co-Wash Used For?

Co-wash is short for conditioner washing, where you wash your hair with conditioner.

However, it’s important to note that co-washing isn’t just skipping the shampoo and using a conditioner as normal. You will actually be replacing your poo.

We’d also like to add that what you’ll be using for co-washing isn’t your regular conditioner. There are products specifically formulated for co-wash.

They’re still considered hair cleansers but in a much gentler formula. That’s why most of these products are called cleansing conditioners.

Like conditioners, they have cationic surfactants such as behentrimonium chloride to condition the hair and keep the pH at a low level and the hair cuticle smooth.

Additionally, cleansing conditioners contain a nonionic surfactant called cetyl alcohol that does the cleaning.

How to Co-Wash Curly Hair

Just like any other product or method, you can get the most out of co-wash if you do it the right way and choose the best product.

For co-washing, we recommend Carol’s Daughter Hair Milk Curl Cleansing Conditioner. It’s made with hair-loving ingredients, so it’s perfect for curls, coils, kinks, and waves.

Here are the recommended steps for co-washing:

  1. Soak your hair with water.
  2. Put a heaping amount of cleansing conditioner on your palm.
  3. Work the co-wash into your locks and massage the scalp well using your fingertips. Do this for three to five minutes.
  4. Rinse your hair thoroughly.

For better visualization of those steps, here’s Mrs. Alba Ramos showing us how to co-wash.

Pros and Cons of Co-Washing

People with textured hair opt to co-wash because they claim it makes their hair healthier and their curls more defined.

Because waves and curls are more prone to dryness, using shampoo adds to the problem. So to refresh the hair, they use conditioners.

This way, they ensure that they keep the moisture in the strands and they won’t deal with dry, frizzy curls.

However, conditioners are not effective in removing product buildup. It doesn’t cleanse your hair and scalp the same way shampoo does.

And if your scalp becomes full of buildup, your pores and follicles will get clogged. This results in hair not growing properly and can even lead to hair loss.

Co-Washing vs Shampoo: Which Is Best For You?

After reading everything you need to know about shampoo vs co-wash, it’s now time to decide which to use for your hair regimen.

We now know that shampoo is great for cleaning our locks but can also strip natural oils and moisture from your hair, making your hair drier and more prone to frizz.

Alternatively, using a co-wash regimen can help your hair maintain its moisture level. That said, your hair will be healthier, with normal elasticity so there will be less breakage. However, it cannot remove product buildup and might result in hair loss.

So is co-wash better than shampoo?

To be honest, not one is better. And you can continue reading to understand why.

Hair Type

A curly haired woman looking at the side touching her hair

Shampoo and co-wash each address different hair types.

Thick curls and coils can benefit most from using co-wash because the strands are more fragile and more prone to moisture loss.

As for fine, straight hair that has a tendency to be greasy, shampoo is always needed.

Co-wash vs Shampoo: The Balance

Both products have negative effects when not used properly yet have great benefits when done the right way.

Co-washing is for better hydration rather than cleansing, but too much moisture can weigh down your hair.

And remember that having clean hair is equally important since buildup on the scalp can lead to irritation, dandruff, and hair loss.

These two are quite different, but here’s the good news: you don’t have to choose between clean or healthy hair. You can have both!

Just alternate using shampoo and co-wash. For example, you can use your co-wash today, then reach for shampoo on your next wash day.

Or if you think that still dries your hair, you can co-wash for two showers and then shampoo on the next.

Additionally, make sure you use a mild shampoo and the correct conditioner for washing.

FAQs on Co-Wash vs Shampoo

How Often Should You Co-Wash?

You can co-wash as often as you use your shampoo. We recommend co-washing at least once or twice a week, then alternating with a shampoo.

Or you can co-wash regularly for a month and then use a clarifying shampoo to remove the buildup once or twice a month.

Do You Need to Use Conditioner After Co-Wash?

Co-washes already contain moisturizing agents that can condition your hair, so a follow-up conditioner is not really needed.

In fact, using co-wash can save you time and money because you won’t use a rinse-out conditioner anymore.

Co-wash Vs Shampoo: It’s a Tie!

Is co-washing better than shampooing?

Now that you know the pros and cons of both products, you can decide better.

You don’t have to stick to using just one of them. Use co-wash one or two times per week to avoid dryness and brittleness in your locks. Then cleanse your scalp with shampoo the next time you wash your hair.

But while that is our recommendation, you know your hair best. You know when your hair feels dry or dirty. So it’s up to you if you’ll have more co-wash days or shampoo days.

When you use co-wash and shampoo alternately, you’ll get the best of both worlds.

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Author

  • Rachelle Velasco

    Rachelle, is a sought-after freelance hair and makeup artist, shines particularly in the world of hair color. From subtle ombres and balayages to vibrant hues and intricate root work, she crafts unique styles tailored to individual preferences. Beyond her artistic talents, Rachelle also holds a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education, showcasing her diverse skill set and dedication to learning.

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