What is no-poo, cleansing conditioners, co-washes?

Unless you’ve just hit your lane in hair care and aren’t interested in anything else, you’ve probably heard of the no-poo method, cleansing conditioners, and co-washes.

Image result for detergent molecule
Cartoon showing detergents pulling away dirt and oil (the grey stuff). The red ball is the water loving end (hydrophilic), the yellow tail is the water hating end (hydrophobic).

To start this I guess it’s best to define what actually makes a shampoo. In it’s most simple definition a shampoo is a formulation that contains a detergent/soap for washing hair. Some define it only as a liquid formulation; however, there are several dry powder formulations on the market now as well. Chemically, a detergents/soaps contain a water loving side and a water hating side of a molecule. Lots of molecules will form around oils (which hate water) and get washed away by water when you rinse. Detergents don’t care what oils they strip. They can be very harsh stripping all oils (my mom use to wash her hair with Dawn). Hands down the most popular detergent/soap in haircare is sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium luareth sulfate. Sodium lauryl sulfate is slightly harsher than sodium laureth sulfate. They’re also referred to as SLS. These sulfates also causes the lathering effect of shampoos.

We know here are alternatives to removing oil and dirt that don’t include using sulfate detergents/soaps which enters us into the no-poo realm of haircare.

The No-poo Method

Besides having a name every 6 year old will laugh at the no-poo method comes from no shampoo cleaning of the hair. By no shampoo it means no soap. This is a different method from cleansing conditioners and co-washing entirely. Just wait because this thing gets weird. I don’t see how anyone gets clean hair with this method. Simply put, a baking soda and water mixture is applied to the hair roots, massaged, then rinsed. POOF, supposedly clean hair. Baking soda is an alkaline substance the idea being that pH helps to remove extra gunk on the scalp. Then an apple cider vinegar rinse is applied which acts as a conditioner and correct your scalps pH to something closer to normal.

Pros:

  1. It works well, once.
  2. Very inexpensive
  3. Most people already have baking soda and ACV in their pantry.

As you can guess there are massive problems with this method.

UK map showing areas of hard water and soft water
Water Hardness Map of the United States
  1. If you have hard water, it’s pointless. Hard water contains a lot of calcium carbonate and other minerals that strip hair of oil. So adding baking soda is just going to compound the issue. As the map of the UK and US show, most people have hard water. It’s a byproduct of runoff and the water treatment process.
  2. Apple Cider Vinegar isn’t conditioner. It does seal the cuticle but if you use it too often you’re just damaging it.
  3. You aren’t removing any residue from hair products. Mouse might be manageable but hair spray isn’t going anywhere.
  4. Figuring out the correct dilution is almost impossible.
  5. You’re not adding any protein to your hair
  6. Oils are being over-stripped and not replaced
  7. No more hot showers
  8. Brushing with a natural fiber brush such as boar bristle will become a must in order to get the oils most from the scalp to the ends and exfoliate the scalp. This can damage hair if done too much or you rip a brush through your hair.
  9. I did this for 3 months and my hair turned into crunchy hay

Don’t believe me? You can try it yourself. There are tons of ‘recipes’ for no poo shampoo. But just think, if there’s that many recipes it means no one really loves the first no-poo shampoo recipe they try. Trial and LOTs of error.

One thought from the pro-no-poo movement is that this is a more natural approach to cleaning hair. This couldn’t be further from the truth. At no time in known history has baking soda been used exclusively to clean hair. Ancient Egyptians shaved it. Midevil Europe used lye, rosemary water and other concoctions to cover the smell mostly, conditioned with fats like olive oil, and brushed their hair often (headdresses and scarves were also incredibly popular). The 1700s saw wigs and the Victorians used eggs and brandy. Then we have the 1930s and shampoo. Baking soda wasn’t even discovered until nearly 1800 and by the 1850s we had rudimentary soaps like castile soap and french milled soaps widely available. French milled soaps have a 600 year history. Just from this very simple, non-exhaustive, timeline you can see that baking soda has never been considered a hair cleanser. It’s just too harsh. Cracking eggs on top of your hair will work better at cleansing than baking soda. Just realize that the hot shower water will also cook the egg when you go to rinse!!! Scrambled eggs anyone?

Cleansing Conditioners and Co-Washes

Made mainstream by the Curly Girl Method and Wen haircare, cleansing conditioners use several types of chemicals to clean hair but no detergents/soaps so they don’t lather. One of the more popular cleansers is Laureth-4 which is found in DevaCurl. Cocoamphopropionate compounds which is in Loreal’s cleansing balm. Behentrimonium compounds which is used by Phyto, UnWash, Shea Moisture, and Ouidad. There’s also a handful of essential oils to aid in cleaning and balancing oil production. There are also plant oils or Aloe Vera juice is also popular for conditioning. Aloe Vera is a known conditioner and it’s the first or second ingredient in Wen’s hair care line.

Since there are so many cleansing compounds you may need to try a few to figure out which works best for you. One popular ‘at-home’ recipe for co-washes are to mix your conditioner and shampoo. This by definition isn’t a co wash or cleansing conditioner since you still use an SLS to cleanse the hair. You’ve just mixed it together.

One con of the cleansing conditioner is the amount of product you have to use. When using traditional shampoos a tablespoon of shampoo will clean even the longest hair since you really only focus on the scalp area. But with cleansing conditioners I use a quarter of a cup of product on soaking wet hair. And your hair has to be soaking wet. I promise the water is very important. It takes about 2 minutes to message everything in then I let it sit until the end of my shower. Once its rinsed out completely you use a little bit more as a leave in conditioner concentrating on your ends. If you’re a quick shower taker this isn’t going to be a good method or you’ll have to change your bathing habits. Air drying also becomes an issue as the roots of your hair can become very oily if product get near the roots.

The first two weeks are known as a transition period where you move from using a traditional shampoo to using your cleansing conditioner and this time frame can be ROUGH. You’ll cleanse almost every day and your hair will be incredibly oily. However, after that you’ve gone through over producing too much oil to a more balanced oil production and it really is more manageable. Starting this on a Thursday or Friday is pretty smart and mastering the slicked by ponytail will be your friend.

Pros:

  1. Very gentle on hair
  2. Can be an effective cleanser removing oil and dirt for most people
  3. Conditioning treatment very good except those with very dry hair
  4. Environmentally friendly
  5. Very few human health risks (but don’t eat it)

Cons:

  1. Lots of product need to be used. And that amount increases exponentially as hair gets longer (at least that’s how it feels)
  2. Costs more than traditional shampoos
  3. More time requirements
  4. Need to be careful of product getting to the roots making air drying a challenge sometimes
  5. Still might need to use a good dry shampoo more often
  6. First week or two of use can be difficult as you begin to produce less oils.
  7. Doesn’t clean residue like hair spray and styling gel as well as shampoo.
  8. Won’t help hair porosity especially if it’s due to chemicals, the leave in treatment isn’t heavy enough but adding a split end mender or heavier oils will help seal the cuticle.

I’ve been a Wen user for years and quit because of the expense. They aren’t just expensive even when you subscribe and get that little bit of a discount. I do periodically still use cleansing conditioners especially during the winter when my hair is incredibly dry; I may use a traditional shampoo once or twice a month. During the summer I use a traditional shampoo once a week to do a better job of removing residue or if I’ve used a lot of hair spray to set a style. If you have very dry hair I’d recommend using a cleansing conditioner to get your hair more normalized. You can still use deep conditioning masks, hair oils, and leave in conditioners (that little bit of cleansing conditioner you add back is your leave-in) when using cleansing conditioners so don’t think you have to throw away your entire hair care arsenal to start using these methods.

There’s definitely a place for both styles of cleansing for nearly every hair care regiment but adding a cleansing conditioner or co-wash to your regular hair care routine especially if you have long or curly hair will show great improvement over a month or two. Once I switched I’ll never go back to only using a traditional shampoo method. The biggest reason I switched back to a hybrid system was after 2 years of using a cleansing conditioner almost exclusively it wasn’t getting all the buildup out of my hair and weighing it down a lot. My roots weren’t getting as clean as it once had, that’s when I started to use a regular shampoo once a week and used cleansing conditioners to maintain in between shampoos.

After I made a full switch to a cleansing conditioner I saw great improvement in the condition of my scalp. I do suffer from seborrheic dermatitis, also known as chronic dandruff. My family has a history of psoriasis so it isn’t really a big deal to me except I don’t wear black shirts very often. Once I started to use cleansing conditioners I didn’t need to use my prescription strength steroid medication as much on my scalp but still had to use my topical cream in my ears and along some areas of my hair line. I am not advocating cleansing conditioners as a treatment for dandruff, simply mentioning it has helped but not cured in my case specifically. I still have to use a prescription and OTC treatments on occasion, mostly exfoliating shampoos like Neutrogena T-Sal or Avalon Organics medicated shampoo which both contain salicylic acid to help exfoliate the scalp. I still have to see my dermatologist once a year for my scalp condition. Like I said by no means cured but I do use my script medicated shampoo once every 3 weeks instead of once a week. I’m not posting what medicated shampoo I use because that’s a violation of FDA regulations.

I can’t really advocate one method (traditional shampoo versus cleansing conditioners) over the other because cleansing conditioners can be a significant cost for some but if you’re able to use them on off days to prolong the time between a traditional shampoo it can be very beneficial to your hair and scalp health.

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