What Is Co-Washing, and Is It for You?

A woman combing conditioner through her dark hair.

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It took me about 45 years, but I finally found the right combination of shampooing and conditioning that works for my hair, as well as the schedule to do both. I've learned that I can go for at least 10 days between shampoos, sometimes even two weeks.

If I've had my hair straightened, either by a professional or by my own hand, I don't need to do anything between washes except use some dry shampoo the last few days on the roots. If I'm letting my natural curls do their crazy thing, I usually need to wet my hair and just use conditioner on the ends every few days in between shampoos.

So, what is co-washing?

A woman washing conditioner through her entire head of hair.

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The practice of conditioning without shampooing is known as co-washing. The "co" is short for "conditioner only." Without knowing there was a name for it, I've been doing my own style of co-washing for years now. When you co-wash, you use conditioner in the same way you would use shampoo. Every two to four weeks, advises Real Simple, you do a regular shampoo to clean your scalp and wash out any buildup from conditioner or hair products.

This is how to co-wash. After wetting your hair thoroughly, use a generous amount of conditioner and massage it into your scalp like you would shampoo and then pull it through the rest of your hair. I like to comb it through with a wide-tooth comb. It helps evenly distribute the conditioner, gets rid of any tangles, and helps to get rid of any loose hair.

Co-washing isn't for everyone. It doesn't work very well on people with fine or very straight hair, or those with an oily scalp. Those who find it works well usually have dry, curly or wavy hair. They find their hair retains more moisture and curls tend to frizz less. And, while women tend to be the ones who write about co-washing online, the process works for men, too. My teenage son inherited my dry hair and my curls, and when I finally convinced him to stop shampooing so often, he got great results.

Find what works for your hair

A woman combs her wet hair out after conditioning.

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Trial and error is key when creating your own co-washing schedule. What works for my very long, curly, color-processed hair might not work for someone else's hair. Others may be able to go longer between shampoos or shampoo once a week. To get started, skip one shampoo and use conditioner instead and see how you like the results. If they're good, skip another shampoo.

You could even try skipping shampoo altogether. There's a no-'poo movement that ditches store-bought shampoos. Some people don't use anything to clean their hair and say that after a period of adjustment where hair can be oily and greasy, the hair eventually becomes very healthy. There are others who create natural hair cleansers. A popular one is a mixture of baking soda and apple cider vinegar, although some say that after a period of time, the baking soda changes the pH of the hair and eventually damages it.

I'd like to get rid of store-bought shampoo, and there are two methods that have caught my interest right now. The first is a rye flour and water mixture. The second is bar shampoo that works like a bar of soap, but it has ingredients that are good for hair and generally leave out damaging ingredients like sulfates and parabens. There are several bar shampoos on the market, and I'm going to give them a try for the next month or so. If I don't find any to be helpful, then I'm going to try the rye flour and water. I'll report back on my experience.