How to Co-Wash, AKA the Micellar Water for Dry, Damaged

In the world of hair-care products, shampoo and conditioner stand as two fundamental staples. But then there are co-washes, which fall smack in the middle of the cleansing category. Though these tend to be overshadowed by the popularity of shampoo and conditioner, co-washing can help the health of your hair, so it’s good to know how to co-wash your strands properly so that you can switch things up.

Co-washes are better suited for those with more textured, curly, or thick hair types. “Any hair type can co-wash, but we do not recommend those with fine-textured or thin hair to co-wash, as it can easily weigh the hair down,” says Merian Odesho, founder and formulator of Bounce Curl. Keep scrolling to learn more about the hair-care product category.

What is a co-wash?

“A co-wash is a conditioner-based product that has a few cleansing surfactant ingredients in it,” says Odesho. “It will essentially cleanse and condition the hair.” Meant to be used in place of a shampoo, it helps to clarify the hair and scalp in between wash days. “The idea behind co-washing is to prevent over-cleansing the hair,” says Shab Reslan, a hair health expert at HairClub. “That also allows your natural scalp oils to remain in place to increase moisture in your hair.”

Co-wash vs. shampoo

When you realize what co-washes do, they start to sound a lot like… shampoo. But, according to Odesho, a major differentiator is how much a co-wash lathers. “Shampoo usually foams a lot, while co-wash doesn’t foam at all,” she says. “The co-wash has conditioner ingredients and just a few foamy surfactant ingredients, while a shampoo doesn’t have any conditioning ingredients—but a lot of surfactants,” she says.

Juliana Ohlmeyer, a New York City-based hairstylist and colorist, says to think of it this way: “Compare it to what micellar water or a milky cleanser does for your face—co-washing doesn’t completely strip, but preserves the moisture in your hair,” she says. That’s rather than a foaming cleanser, for example, which can be drying. So co-washing is meant to not over-stress your scalp by shampooing too frequently, and to help preserve your hair’s natural, healthy oils so that it doesn’t get dry and brittle.

Benefits of co-washing

Since co-washing cuts down on your hair-washing days, it helps improve the overall health of your hair. “Taking proper care of your scalp requires preventing buildup by cleansing sufficiently, and co-washing allows you to skip shampooing and continue building up moisture from conditioner,” says Reslan, who notes that it’s also important not to overuse your co-wash (also because of buildup). As with most products, there can be too much of a good thing.

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Besides that, Odesho says that one perk of co-washing is that it’s quicker as compared to shampooing, since rinsing it out is easier than getting out all of the suds from traditional shampoos. “Co-washes also untangle hair better than shampoo, and help to decrease hair breakage,” she says.

How to co-wash

To get the most out of your co-wash, it’s key to work it into your hair. “Apply the co-wash to your scalp and really massage it in so that you remove any oils or dirt,” says Odesho. As far as how often to use one, it depends on your hair type. “Co-washing is more popular among those with really curly and textured hair, since it allows the conditioner to continue to build moisture onto the hair and weigh down frizz,” says Reslan.

If you’re using a co-wash in your hair-care routine, continue to use a regular shampoo, too. “Remember to still wash with a sudsy shampoo a few times a month to ensure that the scalp is cleansed properly, as sometimes a cleansing conditioner can weigh the hair down,” says Odesho. A clarifying shampoo is great for the job, since it gives your scalp exfoliation.

Since experts recommend treating a co-wash like you would a shampoo, it’s really your choice on how often you use it. The general consensus is about two to three times a week, though you could use a co-wash daily if your hair responds well to the treatment.

Shop co-washing products for your hair-care routine

Davines Love Curl Cleansing Cream, $48

Photo: Davines

Ohlmeyer is a fan of this co-wash, especially for curly hair types. “It softens and adds loads of shine,” she says. “It’s very easy to apply and you notice a difference in the balance of oils in your hair.” The cream gently gets rid of impurities and nourishes with sweet almond extract.

Briogeo Be Gentle, Be Kind Avocado + Quinoa Co-Wash, $32

Photo: Briogeo

This co-wash infuses dehydrated hair with strand-protecting quinoa extract, moisturizing avocado oil and aloe vera, and softening shea butter. It’s a clarifying and conditioning multi-tasker that works best on textured, thick, dry, and color-treated hair.

Kevin Murphy Re.Store, $42

Photo: Kevin Murphy

The Kevin Murphy Re.Store co-washing treatment is meant to replenish over-processed or damaged hair with its superfood-rich formula (including green pea protein and papaya) and amino acids. Ohlmeyer loves it because it smells like “a tropical vacation” while keeping your hair shiny and strong.

Inahsi Naturals Tropical Escape Co-Wash, $28

Photo: Inahsi Naturals

For a co-wash that’s gentle and hydrating (and that also smells like a tropical vacation), this one by Inahsi Naturals does the job. After massaging it into your scalp, you’ll rinse to reveal rejuvenated, shiny hair that’s been infused with moisture.

SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl Moisture Co-Wash, $12

Photo: SheaMoisture

This drugstore co-wash smells divine, and works to moisturize and define thick and curly hair types. The formula sloughs off scalp buildup while leaving your strands smooth, shiny, and frizz-free.

Kristin Ess Ultra Hydrating Curl Co-Wash, $14

Photo: Kristin Ess

Snag this co-wash if you have medium to coarse curly strands, as it works to deliver serious moisture without stripping your hair of its natural oils. It’s formulated to help protect your hair against external pollutants as it smooths frizz and encourages coils.

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