Co-Wash vs Shampoo: Finding the Right Cleanser for Your Curls

Caring for curly hair requires finding the right balance of moisture and cleansing. Two popular methods curly-haired folks use to cleanse their locks are co-washing and shampooing. But when is each one better and how do you choose what’s right for your hair? We’re breaking it all down.

Co-Washing vs. Shampooing

Co-washing and shampooing take different approaches to cleaning curly hair:

  • Co-washing uses conditioner (free of sulfates and silicones) as a gentle cleanser that removes some dirt, oils, and product buildup without stripping moisture.
  • Shampooing uses surfactants that create a lather to dissolve oils, impurities, and residue that plain water cannot remove.

While co-washing is gentler, regular shampooing is still recommended to thoroughly clarify hair and scalp. Using both in balance is ideal for most curly hair types.

Co-washing and shampooing take different approaches to cleaning curly hair:

What it isUsing a conditioner formulated to gently cleanse hairUsing a surfactant-based formula that creates a foamy lather to dissolve oils and buildup
BenefitsRetains moisture and oils for soft, defined curls; less manipulation neededThoroughly dissolves oils, dirt, product residue; clarifies scalp
DrawbacksCannot fully clarify hair and scalp; buildup over timeCan strip natural oils leading to dryness and frizz
Best use2-3 times per week to refresh curls1-2 times per week to fully cleanse hair and scalp

What Is Co-Washing?

Co-washing refers to using a conditioner formulated to gently cleanse hair. Traditional conditioners are too heavy for this purpose. Instead, co-washes contain mild surfactants to lift away impurities without harsh sulfates.

Benefits of co-washing curly hair:

  • Retains essential moisture and oils for soft, defined curls
  • Prevents dryness, brittleness, and frizz
  • Less manipulation and friction than shampooing
  • Safe for color-treated hair

However, co-washing alone cannot thoroughly cleanse curly hair. Some buildup will remain over time.

About Shampoos

Shampoos use stronger surfactants that create a rich, foamy lather to dissolve oils, dirt, styling products, and anything water cannot rinse away alone.

But this deep cleaning can strip the natural oils curly hair needs. Too frequent shampooing leads to:

  • Dry, frizzy hair
  • Weakened and brittle strands
  • Loss of elasticity, definition and shine

That’s why curly hair relies on conditioner after shampooing. Still, shampoo remains necessary to clarify hair fully.

Surfactant Types and Strengths

Surfactants are detergents that enable shampoos and co-washes to cleanse hair. They come in various strengths:

  • Anionic surfactants (like sodium laureth sulfate) create the most foam and remove oils and buildup very effectively but can be harsh.
  • Nonionic surfactants (like decyl glucoside) are milder and often used in sulfate-free shampoos.
  • Cationic surfactants (like behentrimonium chloride) have a conditioning effect but limited cleansing ability. These are found in co-washes.
  • Amphoteric surfactants (like cocamidopropyl betaine) are mild detergents used in co-washes and mild shampoos.

Balancing these surfactant types is key for gentle, effective cleansing of curly hair.

Cleansing Strength of Co-Washes

Co-washes cannot cleanse hair thoroughly on their own. Their mild cationic and amphoteric surfactants gently lift some dirt and oils but don’t create a deep lather.

Some buildup remains over time with co-washing alone. For this reason, occasional shampooing is still recommended.

Options for Sulfate-Free Shampoos

There are several types of sulfate-free shampoos for curly hair:

  • Low-poo: Very gentle with minimal lather. Ideal for fine hair.
  • Classic: More foam to dissolve oils and buildup. Safe for all hair types.
  • Clarifying: Strongest surfactants to deeply remove residue. Can be drying if overused.

Experiment to find your ideal sulfate-free shampoo. Combine with co-washing for moisture-cleanse balance.

When to Use Co-Wash vs. Shampoo

Follow these tips to incorporate both cleansers into your curly hair care routine:

  • Co-wash 2-3 times per week to gently refresh curls.
  • Use a classic sulfate-free shampoo 1-2 times per week to clarify hair and scalp.
  • Clarify with a stronger shampoo every 4-5 washes if needed.
  • Alternate between co-washing and shampooing for ideal moisture and cleansing.
  • Take the Curl Quiz for personalized Curlsmith product recommendations.

Achieving soft, healthy curls means finding the right mix of moisture and cleansing for your hair. Balancing co-washing and sulfate-free shampoos can give you clean yet hydrated locks.

FAQs about Co-Wash vs Shampoo

Can I co-wash every day?

It’s generally not recommended to only co-wash daily as it won’t fully remove buildup over time. Combine co-washing with occasional shampooing for better cleansing results.

When should I use a clarifying shampoo?

Use a clarifying shampoo once every 4-5 washes if you notice product buildup, limp curls, or an itchy/flaky scalp. Clarify less frequently if you have dry or color-treated hair.

Is co-washing good for fine curly hair?

Yes, co-washing is an ideal gentle cleanser for fine curly hair that needs moisture. Low-foam shampoos are also great options. Avoid heavy conditioners that weigh down fine strands.

Can I use a regular conditioner to co-wash?

Regular conditioners are too heavy for cleansing hair properly. Look for specially formulated co-wash products that contain mild cleansing agents to lift dirt and oils.

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