woman with natural hair
Hair Care, Uncategorized

Shampooing Vs. Co-Washing: Which Is Better for Your Natural Hair?

Shampoo has been given a bad name in the natural hair community. Many women with curly or kinky hair often accuse it of being too drying for their hair types.

Conditioner, on the other hand, has been put on a pedestal. As a matter of fact, some of us think so highly of it that we clean our hair with it instead of shampoo.

Some of the logic behind cleansing our hair with conditioner is technically solid. Our natural hair is dry by nature. Shampoo is drying.

And when you mix dry with dry, you get a desert.

But is shampoo really so bad for our hair? And, more importantly, is conditioner the messiah we’ve made it out to be?

Let’s take a quick look at how cleaning our hair with shampoo compares to getting the job done with conditioner:


As I said before, shampoo’s name is mud these days. New naturals are often encouraged to follow the curly girl method (i.e. go shampoo-free) or shampoo their hair as infrequently as possible.

To be fair, these women’s aversion to shampoo is understood. Many shampoos contain harsh surfactants which are known to irritate skin and strip hair of its natural oils. Some of these surfactants include:

  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS)
  • Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES)
  • Sodium Olefin Sulfonate

If you were to wander into your bathroom right now and take a look at the ingredients list of any traditional shampoo you happen to own, you’d likely find at least one of these surfactants on that list.

shampoo with sulfates
I wash my fine hair with Lush’s Fairly Traded Honey Shampoo. Notice that the third ingredient is Sodium Laureth Sulfate, one of those surfactants I mentioned above.

Despite the fact that these surfactants can leave textured hair dry and irritate our skin from time to time, they do their jobs extremely well. If you wash your hair with a shampoo which contains SLS or SLES, you can be certain that you’ll be looking at clean hair afterward.

So does this mean that you should frequently wash your hair with shampoo? Not exactly. We’re not, after all, always looking to have squeaky clean hair since “squeaky clean” often means “stripped.”

This does, however, mean that shampoo shouldn’t be completely abandoned, as you’ll find out in the next section.


Every woman with kinky or curly natural hair has had some sort of love affair with her favorite conditioner at some point. And who could judge? A conditioner that actually helps detangle natural hair and leaves it soft and moisturized should be held tightly and forever cherished.

Just because it should be cherished, however, doesn’t mean that it should be used to clean your hair whenever wash day rolls around. That said, here are two types of conditioners and their limitations:

Cleansing Conditioner

A cleansing conditioner is a conditioner which is specifically designed to clean hair. While cleansing conditioners aren’t as great at cleaning hair as shampoos, they don’t strip your natural hair of its oils and they clean your hair decently well.

But only up to a certain point.

Simply put, if you only use cleansing conditioners, you’ll eventually have to clarify your hair with a shampoo of some sort. More than likely, the shampoo you clarify with will need to contain one of those harsh surfactants we talked about earlier.

And why is clarifying your hair a necessity?

Because, as I said, cleansing conditioners just don’t cleanse the hair as well as shampoo. They cause buildup over time for some women (especially those with fine hair). This makes sense if you think about the fact that you’re constantly depositing oils (and possibly silicones) into your hair by co-washing.

Furthermore, if you’re regularly pre-pooing with tons of oils, the amount of buildup you get will be more problematic. You’ll consequently need to clarify more often than you would otherwise to remove that excess oil.

*Note: Cleansing conditioners also contain surfactants, but not all surfactants are harsh. Surfactants such as cetrimonium chloride, for instance, can actually help condition your hair.*

Standard Conditioner

A standard conditioner (which isn’t usually labeled as a cleansing conditioner) is not designed to clean hair. Even so, some women use this type of conditioner to cleanse their hair.

conditioner not for co-washing
These are the ingredients for Trader Joe’s Tea Tree Tingle conditioner (which I love since it detangles so well). As you can see, it has a lot of essential oils in it. While some of these oils have antibacterial and antifungal properties, they’re just not enough to clean my hair or scalp. Believe me. I’ve tried.

To be honest, there really isn’t much to say here. I can only recommend that you clarify your hair about once a month (more often if you’re pre-pooing each wash day) if you’re attempting to clean your hair with a normal conditioner.

Further still, if you have fine hair, I don’t suggest that you use a normal conditioner to cleanse your hair at all. Fine hair is incredibly prone to buildup, and that buildup can cause problems with moisture retention. You should at least be using a cleansing conditioner, but a shampoo would be better (albeit more drying).

Shampooing Vs. Co-Washing: Which One Wins?

So which one wins? Shampoo or conditioner?

As it turns out, neither wins. Shampoo is a great, yet drying, cleanser that should be used to remove buildup when needed. Conditoner helps revitalize our hair when it gets dry and can gently cleanse our hair, but it should never be used as your only cleanser. How often you shampoo and/or co-wash depends entirely on your hair’s properties.

So how do you clean your natural hair? Do you co-wash exclusively, use shampoo every wash day, or just co-wash and clarify every now and then? More importantly, how has your wash day routine worked for your hair?

1 thought on “Shampooing Vs. Co-Washing: Which Is Better for Your Natural Hair?”

  1. I love both co-washing and shampooing. I use cowashes more than I do shampoos though. I recently tried the Creme of Nature Cowash (not the best scent) but it worked wonders on my low porosity hair. It makes my curls pop so much! Seeing that I have low porosity hair, I always try to use a cleansing cowash each time I cowash my hair which is twice a week. I will use a mild shampoo maybe once every two weeks and then I clarify once a month with a more intensive shampoo – following up with an intensive deep treatment. Incorporating cowashing into my regimen has done wonders for my hair, rather than just strictly shampoos, my hair is shinier, bouncier and it has grown so much!


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