Cowashing is the practice of using conditioner to wash the hair instead of shampoo. Some people find cowashing helps ease hair dryness and reduce breakage. However, it can also lead to oily residue buildup in the scalp or hair.
Individuals can manage this by using a clarifying shampoo occasionally to remove buildup. How often someone needs to do this can vary depending on their hair type. In general, fine or thin hair is more prone to visible oily buildup than thicker hair.
There are no standard, scientific guidelines for choosing the right way to wash hair. Some people cowash daily or only a few times per week or month. The best option can depend on a person’s hair type, how it responds to their regimen, cultural norms, and personal preference.
This article looks at what cowashing is, how it works, its benefits, and how to choose a conditioner. We also provide a step-by-step guide to trying cowashing at home.
The term “cowashing” is a combination of the words “conditioner” and “washing.” It involves using a conditioner to cleanse the hair, rather than a shampoo. This could be a regular conditioner or a product specifically for cowashing.
When cowashing, a person works conditioner into the hair and scalp, gently scrubbing the scalp with the fingertips to remove any buildup.
Cowashing can completely replace shampooing, or a person might alternate between the two. Some people who cowash do it as part of a specific hair care routine, such as the “Curly Girl Method,” which involves using silicone, sulfate, and alcohol-free products to maintain the health of curly hair.
Shampoo and conditioner have two different purposes. Shampoos aim to remove oils and buildup from the hair and scalp, while conditioners typically add moisture and smooth the hair cuticle.
However, they have something in common: both shampoo and conditioner contain surfactants, substances that can wash away oil and dirt.
Shampoo typically contains harsher anionic surfactants, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, which creates a lather. Sometimes, they contain amphoteric surfactants instead, which are milder. These are common ingredients in baby shampoos.
By contrast, conditioners usually contain cationic surfactants, such as cetyl alcohol. These substances stick to the surface of the hair, coating the follicle and smoothing it down, rather than creating a lather.
The presence of surfactants in conditioners means it is possible to wash the hair with just this product. However, unlike shampooing, cowashing will not strip the hair or scalp of as much moisture.
There is no scientific data on the benefits of cowashing. This is because it is largely a cultural practice, and currently, no studies have looked at how it affects hair.
However, people who choose to cowash report several benefits, including:
- hair that feels more hydrated and healthy
- improved moisture in curly or kinky hair and better curl definition
- hair that is stronger and breaks less easily
- buying fewer hair products, which saves money
- being able to wash the hair less frequently
Another potential benefit is environmental, as using one product to clean the hair reduces consumption. Some companies that make cowash products also aim to be sustainable. They may:
- exclude ingredients that do not biodegrade, such as silicones, from their products
- use ingredients from responsible sources
- use recyclable or plastic-free packaging
- make their cowash into a solid bar, reducing the need for additional packaging
However, this does not apply to all conditioners. If a person wishes to switch to more sustainable hair products, it is best to research the product, its ingredients, and the company’s practices.
Anyone can try cowashing, but whether it helps a person maintain healthy hair depends on their hair type. This is because different hair types have different needs.
Highly porous hair easily accepts moisture, but it also loses it quickly. In contrast, low porosity hair accepts moisture less easily but also retains it for longer.
Here is a guide to how hair types might respond to cowashing. However, it is important to note that these are generalizations — what works for one person does not always work for another.
Straight hair has a round cuticle, which helps it lie flat. This means straight hair usually has low porosity and loses moisture less quickly than other hair types. It is also easier for oil from the scalp to travel down the shaft, sealing in moisture.
These qualities mean straight hair tends to be smooth and shiny, as long as it is healthy. However, it can also get dry if it does not absorb moisture easily. It may also get visibly greasy faster, particularly if the hair is fine or thin.
People with this hair type may find a lighter conditioner is better for cowashing. They may also benefit from using fewer styling products, so they do not weigh the hair down. A clarifying shampoo can help remove buildup.
Wavy hair features an oval-shaped shaft. It is usually more porous and prone to dryness or frizziness than straight hair, but not as much as curly hair. It can be fine and silky or coarse and thick.
How wavy hair responds to cowashing varies. Generally, it can be beneficial for those with thicker or drier hair to choose thicker and more intensely hydrating cowash products. Those with finer hair may prefer a lighter conditioner and more frequent shampooing.
Curly hair has an “S” or corkscrew shape. This means the hair cuticle lifts in various places, giving it a tendency to be less shiny and more porous than straight hair. It is also
Cowashing can be helpful for people with this hair type. Some individuals follow cowashing with a hydrating conditioner, which they may not totally rinse out. Alternatively, they may use a leave-in conditioner when styling.
Coily or textured hair
Coily hair has an elliptical shaft, with tight curls or a Z-shaped pattern. It tends to be porous and vulnerable to dryness or breakage. However, it often responds well to less frequent washing, which gives natural oils a chance to coat the hair.
Cowashing can also help with this, as it avoids using harsh surfactants that further strip moisture from the hair. It can also help seal in water that enters the hair during washing. After washing, it may help to use a leave-in conditioner that contains a humectant, which attracts moisture to the hair.
No single conditioner is a good fit for all hair types. Even people with very similar hair may find that their hair responds differently to the same product. How the hair responds to a product can also change over time. For example, the seasons can influence how dry hair is and, therefore, the best conditioner to use as a cowash.
Start by determining the porosity of the hair. People can do this through one of the following ways:
- Spray test: Spray water onto clean, dry hair. If the hair has low porosity, beads of water will remain on it for longer, while in high porosity hair, they will disappear more quickly.
- Float test: Place a strand of clean hair in a bowl of water. Hair that immediately sinks to the bottom has high porosity. Hair that gradually sinks is medium porosity, while hair that floats has low porosity.
- Observation: If it takes a while to get the hair wet in the shower, it may have low porosity.
People with high porosity hair can benefit from conditioners containing proteins, such as silk protein. They also tend to favor conditioners that contain heavier oils and butters, such as avocado or shea, to seal in moisture.
By contrast, those with low porosity hair may find protein treatments lead to hair stiffness and buildup, as the hair does not absorb them. They may see more benefit with conditioners that do not contain proteins or thick butters. Instead, look for products with lighter oils, such as coconut, or humectants, such as glycerin.
Trying different products may be necessary to find a suitable routine with the right one. Try testing one at a time for a few washes each, monitoring how the hair responds.
To try cowashing, first, get the hair thoroughly wet. Apply conditioner to the scalp and gently scrub with the fingertips. A person might wash for just a few seconds or scrub for several minutes if the scalp is very oily.
Next, rinse out the conditioner fully. Then apply the same product as a typical conditioner, smoothing onto the hair to the ends, and do not scrub.
A person may wish to leave the conditioner on for a few minutes or rinse straight away. Those with very dry hair may prefer to leave a small amount on the hair rather than rinsing it all off.
People using leave-in conditioners should apply them immediately after washing.
Start by cowashing once per week to see how it feels. If it makes their hair feel healthy and hydrated, a person may want to increase to a couple of times per week or more.
Cowashing is an alternative to using shampoos. It involves using a conditioner to cleanse the hair, which can be beneficial for some people. It is popular among those with dry, coarse, curly, or kinky hair to boost moisture.
This approach requires a willingness to experiment and adapt their cowashing approach to how the hair responds. A person may need to try several products before finding one they like.
Cowashing hair forums can be helpful for getting feedback from other people with similar hair types. A hairstylist or dermatologist may also be able to provide tips.