The Science of Co-washing

by Chandler Rollins | January 29, 2015 | Bookmark +
The Science of Co-washing

Whether you call it co-washing, cleansing conditioners, no-poo or soap-free, the one-step wonders of washing are set to boom in 2015.

IN DECADES PAST, to remove unwanted oil and build-up from hair, a sprinkle or two of talcum powder did the trick. Then, powder and aerosol dry shampoos hit the market and became a household must—shining a light on shampooing alternatives for clients looking to avoid daily washing while maintaining a grease-free appearance. This year, the biggest buzz set to hit salons and retail shelves is the category of cleansing conditioners. These light, no-suds formulas have gained popularity with their emphasis on convenience and care.


Like the name implies cleansing conditioners used for co washing, are non-foaming products designed to clean the hair, without sulfates, surfactants or stripping hair of moisture. Co-washing, short for “conditioner washing,” has its roots in the curly and natural hair communities. Wen, created by celebrity stylist Chaz Dean, was an early product marketed as a shampoo-free way to clean the hair. As clients’ needs evolve, this once niche concept is available with a host of options for salons and clients looking for a shampoo alternative.

A Shampoo? A Conditioner?

Unlike cleansing conditioners, some shampoos use surfactant technology, which can include detergents like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium chloride. While these ingredients effectively clean and remove unwanted residue from hair, they can remove natural lipids, which, depending on hair type and texture, may result in the loss of moisture and haircolor vibrancy. 


Matrix, for example, just launched Biolage’s Cleansing Conditioners, which cleanse and condition without parabens, sulfates, silicones or soap. The new formulas boast three times more manageability than traditional shampoo, without frizz or static, and slide away dirt without removing natural lipids.


Matrix explains: Traditional cleansing equals soap, suds and scrubbing. Detergent is attracted to dirt and gets deposited through lather and scrubbing. Rinsing then pulls the dirt from the hair, and might rough the cuticle, potentially exacerbating unmanageable hair. New cleansing conditioners, however, optimize this “free-from” technology for high-performance, gentle cleansing designed to draw out impurities and condition the hair for a better clean without weight.


“Stylists benefit from introducing cleansing conditioners as their method of choice because they help promote vibrant, long-lasting color and reduce blowdry time,” says Brandon Schwartz, marketing director for Unwash. “Coupled with the benefit of only needing to use one product to both cleanse and provide conditioning and detangling cleansing conditioners save time at the bowl and in the chair.”

The Science

When thinking of cleansing conditioners, consider the scalp and hair as two separate priorities, says DevaCurl VP of Education Shari Harbinger. Not all products are created equal, she indicates—while one product may cleanse the scalp, moisture loss is a risk for the rest of the hair. Therefore, the pH of a product that is used on the scalp to promote cleansing and stimulation should be higher than the pH of a product used on the hair. 


“In the spirit of ‘clarification,’ if interested in switching to a conditioning cleanser method, make sure the product’s pH is high enough to promote scalp stimulation, cleansing and invigoration,” Harbinger says. “We are seeing a bit of confusion as clients have decided to ditch shampoo and replace with conditioner for added moisture—but make sure it is not at the expense of proper cleansing."


So how do co-washing products actually clean the hair? The answer is emulsion technology, says Eufora’s in house “ingredient geek,” James Grundy. “Emulsion, which is Latin for milked out, is defined as a liquid preparation consisting of two completely immiscible liquids,” Grundy says. “In the case of a conditioner, this is the blending of water with oil. The only way to get the oil to mix with water is to create a micelle emulsion. These micelles are what make emulsions white and allow them to capture oils and dirt from the hair.”

Not Just for Curls

“Co-washing has long been a practice among individuals with fragile, naturally curly hair who recognize the need to treat their locks with extra care,” says Matrix Celebrity Stylist George Papanikolas. “Until now, many clients found that existing conditioning cleansing products tended to weigh hair down and leave it feeling limp and greasy over time.”


Therefore many clients and stylists alike are apprehensive to incorporate these products into their existing cleansing regimens. As a rule of thumb, Ruth Roche, Pureology artistic director and founder of Rare Salon, recommends daily use of cleansing conditioners for curly, textured hair, and for people who work out every day or tend to perspire more.


For finer hair types that get oily more often and need to be washed daily or for hair that tends to experience dryness, cleansing conditioners are great to use every other day, says Giannandrea, Macadamia Professional international creative director. And for those that are still unsure, Biolage’s Cleansing Conditioners take the guessing out of it. Designed specifically for each hair type, the line features four super fruit formulas for fine, medium, coarse and curly hair.

More on Surfactants

Simply speaking, surfactants are compounds that act on the hair surface to remove dirt, sebum and other product residue. “Surfactants in general are not all bad, but actually, in some cases, beneficial,” says independent texture consultant Veronique Morrison, who, having worked for multi-cultural brands, specializes in curl care and maintenance.


“They host properties that enable maximum lather and ease of rinsing. Although some clients enjoy the benefits of optimal cleansing and luxury suds, there are those who are concerned about the long-term effects of surfactants on the hair.” Co-washing appeals to clients who want to protect their delicate strands. “Perhaps an alternating regimen of cleansing with traditional shampoos and cleansing conditioners could be a way to gain the benefits of both,” Morrison says.



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