Co-Wash vs Shampoo: What’s Best For Curls?

Co-Wash vs Shampoo: What’s Best For Curls?

If you have naturally curly hair, you may have heard of the term “co-washing,” but how does it differ from shampooing? We’re going to break down the differences between co-wash and shampoo, and important considerations for both so you can determine the best cleansing method for your curl type.


What’s the Difference Between Shampoo & Co-Wash?

Co-washes and shampoos are both cleansers that are great for naturally curly hair. Many people like to use both in their routine on different wash days. It’s not recommended to only use a co-wash as your cleansing method, you should always add a shampoo every once in a while to prevent build-up from occurring.

What is Co-Washing?

A co-wash, also known as “conditioner wash,” is a hair cleanser that is gentle and doesn’t strip the hair of its natural moisture. Co-washes are sulfate-free and contain very mild cleansing ingredients that remove product residue, dirt, and some oils, but not all. Because of their texture, all curly hair types are drier compared to straight hair, as the natural oils its scalp produces struggle to travel down the hair shaft. These natural oils are key to keep the hair lubricated and prevent breakage, dryness and brittleness. Using a co-wash helps maintain these oils at a healthy level.

What are Shampoos?

Shampoos are your traditional foaming cleansing products for hair that remove dirt, product residue, and oil. Shampoos contain stronger surfactant ingredients that dissolve impurities that cannot be removed with just water.

The Role of Surfactants

There are four types of surfactants: Anionic, cationic, amphoteric and nonionic. Anionic surfactants such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate are the strongest and have a high pH that lifts away build-up but also strips the hair clean of its natural sebum, leaving the cuticle raised and lifted. This can lead to dry hair, friction, protein loss, and frizz, especially in curly hair that is naturally drier.

However when anionic surfactants are combined with other nonionic surfactants they become milder. Sulfate-free shampoos often contain mild anionic surfactants such as Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate and nonionic surfactants such as Lauryl Glucoside. Sulfate-free shampoos are a great option for naturally curly hair because they often lather well, can remove build-up, and won’t strip the hair.

How Well do Co-Washes Cleanse the Hair?

Co-washes often contain cationic and/or amphoteric surfactants, which are mild detergents in comparison to anionic surfactants. Behentrimonium Chloride is a common cationic surfactant found in co-washes. It functions as a hair conditioning agent and has a low pH, similar to the hair’s natural pH which keeps the cuticle smooth. Cationic surfactants are positively charged, therefore they bind to the hair. Co-washes that only contain cationic surfactants will not effectively remove dirt and oils. However, when combined with amphoteric surfactants, a co-wash is able to lift away some of those impurities. Amphoteric surfactants are still mild with a low pH, but the pH is slightly higher than the hair. A common amphoteric surfactant is Cocamidopropyl Betaine, derived from coconuts.


The Curlsmith Curl Quenching Conditioning Wash is a co-wash that contains both Cocamidopropyl Betaine and Behentrimonium Chloride, making it the perfect balance of gentle yet effective.

How Sulfate-Free Shampoos Cleanse the Hair

There are several formulas of sulfate-free shampoos that offer various levels of cleansing. More gentle options are also known as low-poo, while deeper, more intense cleansers are known as clarifying shampoos.

Low-poo Shampoos

Low-poo is a term that defines low-lather shampoo. These types of shampoos often contain non-ionic surfactants that are foaming agents, such as Lauryl Glucoside. Low-lathering shampoos are a great alternative to co-washes for those with fine hair because they have a liquid formula like traditional shampoo. This makes them more lightweight compared to the cream-based formula of co-washes. Low-poo shampoos are very gentle and non-stripping, yet provide a small amount of foam.

Curlsmith Vivid Tones Vibrancy Shampoo is a very gentle low-poo. It has the look and feel of a traditional shampoo but it is suitable for frequent washes because it's non stripping and moisturizing. Any curl type, texture or porosity can use it.

If you are sensitive to fragrance or you have a sensitive scalp, try the Shine Shampoo instead. This fragrance-free cleanser is dermatologically tested to give a gentle cleansing without stripping the hair out.

Classic sulfate-free Shampoos

Classic sulfate-free shampoos typically offer a medium to strong lather and cleansing ability, depending on the formula. The surfactants range from Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, and Decyl Glucoside. All curl types can benefit from a classic sulfate-free shampoo and should incorporate them at least once per week to avoid build-up.

Curlsmith’s Essential Moisture Shampoo falls into this category. It is suitable for frequent washes because it’s mild but it provides a little bit more foam in comparison to low-poo options. The shampoo improves moisture by 87% and offers long lasting frizz control to all curl types, textures, and porosities.

If you require a shampoo with added protein ingredients, try the Core Strength Shampoo which is particularly beneficial for damaged and high porosity hair, however, all hair types can use it to help achieve the right protein moisture balance in the wash routine.

Clarifying Shampoos

Shampoos with sulfates remove all product and sebum build-up, but leave the hair and scalp feeling stripped. Fortunately, there are sulfate-free clarifying shampoo options. These often use a combination of anionic surfactants and amphoteric surfactants. Clarifying shampoos often have the most foaming ability to reach the scalp and cleanse deeply.

Curlsmith Wash & Scrub Detox shampoo is a sulfate-free clarifying shampoo with micro-fine scrub particles to gently exfoliate the scalp and remove build-up. It has a high lather and even contains Apple Cider Vinegar, which is known for its clarifying properties. It’s suitable for all hair types but especially beneficial for those who suffer from a flaky, dry, or itchy scalp.

When to Use a Co-Wash vs. Shampoo

With so many different types of hair cleansers, how do we know how often to wash our hair with each? To reap the benefits of both a co-wash and a shampoo, you can incorporate them both in your routine by alternating each wash day. Co-washes or low-poos could be used mid-week when perhaps you want to quickly restyle and your scalp is not very dirty with build-up. Co-washes are also great if you need to wash frequently due to exercise or your profession. Classic sulfate-free shampoos can be used 1-2 times per week to remove all oils and product residue. If you’re experiencing product or sebum build-up on your hair or scalp, or are suffering from a flaky scalp, a clarifying shampoo should be incorporated roughly every 4-5 washes.


How to choose your Curlsmith cleanser

If you are still unsure about which cleanser is best for your hair type, take the Curl Quiz to receive a personalized recommendation on your Curlsmith routine.

Sharley Viola
Curlsmith’s Lead Educator

Textured Hair Specialist with a vast amount of experience delivering education both nationally and internationally. A self-confessed product junkie committed to spreading her wealth of knowledge amongst the curly hair community and beyond.

Sharley Viola
Curlsmith’s Lead Educator

Textured Hair Specialist with a vast amount of experience delivering education both nationally and internationally. A self-confessed product junkie committed to spreading her wealth of knowledge amongst the curly hair community and beyond.