Properly washing your hair can be a delicate balance. You want to find a routine that's effective enough to remove buildup from your scalp and strands, but you also don't want to do anything that will strip your hair and leave it dry. Because of this, the last few years have seen cleansing conditioners offered as a gentler alternative to shampoo. While these formulas can undoubtedly be beneficial for those with dry hair, according to pros, they only work when they're used right—that is, alongside the right shampoo.
Why cleansing conditioners alone aren't enough
"We cleanse our hair to get out dirt, oil, metals, and other things. The thing about cleansing your hair is you can strip your hair of moisture, which is why we've moved to a lot of sulfate-free shampoos," says Sharleen St. Surin-Lord, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Washington DC. "My issue with a cleansing conditioner is that we need to wash our hair. And to put conditioner on your hair and think that it's washed, it doesn't sit well with me, because some people take it too far."
Cleansing conditioners are most popular among people with curly and kinky hair, as curlier hair tends to be drier. These products evolved out of the idea of co-washing, a practice that got popular in the early 2010s along with the rise of the natural hair movement. The shampoos available were too stripping and drying for textured hair, so people skipped shampoo altogether and started "washing" their hair with conditioner.
"Co-washing stemmed from the fact that there were virtually no shampoos in abundance available in the marketplace that didn't include sulfates. And sulfates are those ingredients that create suds in shampoos, but they also strip our hair of its natural oils, and so people started using conditioner to wash their hair," says Gwen Jimmere, founder and CEO of hair-care brand Naturalicious. "Nowadays, there are a plethora of products available that don't contain sulfates."
Today's cleansing conditioners are much more than just "washing" your hair with a conditioner. These products contain mild surfactants to help remove dirt and buildup from the hair. But they're not as thorough as a shampoo—meaning some of that grime can be left behind even after cleansing, which isn't good for hair or scalp health.
"Although [cleansing conditioners] are gentle on the hair and help the hair not to tangle when trying to cleanse, they do not get the hair or scalp clean enough," says Sophia Emmanuel, trichologist, hairstylist, and owner of Crown Worthy Tricology Studio in New York City. "When you use them often, your scalp will be clogged. This can cause a wealth of scalp problems such as dandruff, excessive itching, seborrheic dermatitis, and hair loss."
Examples of this are seen in the lawsuits that companies like DevaCurl and Wen experienced. In 2020, 13 class-action lawsuits were filed against DevaCurl in New York, California, and Florida. Plaintiffs alleged that some of the products, including the brand's No-Poo and Low-Poo cleansing conditioners, led to hair loss, scalp irritation, and balding. WEN Hair Care faced a similar suit in 2015 when plaintiffs alleged similar damage and hair loss from the use of the Wen Cleansing Conditioner, a "5-in-1 formula" meant to replace shampoo, conditioner, deep conditioner, detangler, and leave-in conditioner. All of these suits reached settlements, with DevaCurl paying out $5.2 million and Wen paying out $26.3 million.
"When you co-wash using products that are considered no-poo, there will be excess buildup on the hair and scalp because co-wash products do not remove excess dirt, buildup, or sebum off the scalp," says Emmanuel. "When dirt and excess oil stay too long on the scalp, it can trigger hair loss that can lead to permanent loss of hair follicles, which then leads to permanent hair loss."
How to incorporate cleansing conditioners into your routine
Cleansing conditioners are great to use in-between shampooing. For example, say you work out often daily and your hair gets sweaty and you want to clean it without overdrying it. A cleansing conditioner allows you to keep your hair feeling clean between shampoos. A cleansing conditioner is also great if you've got curly or kinky hair and are a fan of the wash-and-go, which is essentially a quick process that involves washing hair to redefine the curl pattern.
"When you're doing a wash-and-go, you have to wet your hair every three days anyway. So if your wash day is today, in three days, you're going to have to wet it again because you want to define your curls, so just co-wash then," says Casey LaSure, a Pennsylvania-based hairstylist. That way, you're getting your hair wet and resetting your curls without overdrying them with shampoo.
The key to correctly using a cleansing conditioner is making sure you're using it along with shampoo, not instead of it. Dermatologists say you should shampoo your hair at least every seven to 10 days, depending on your hair type. If your hair doesn't get super oily and you have a reason to wash it more frequently, a cleansing conditioner can be your best friend. If you're experiencing hair loss or conditions like psoriasis on your scalp, be sure to consult your dermatologist before trying a cleansing conditioner, as they may prefer that you stick with a shampoo.
Shop some of the best cleansing conditioners you can use
Billed as a light, creamy shampoo, this cleanser from Bread Beauty Supply teeters on the line between shampoo and cleansing conditioner. I love this product and the way it makes my hair feel. Plus, it smells exactly like the milk left in your bowl after eating fruit loops. It’s packed with argan oil to moisturize and soften, aloe vera juice to help to balance the scalp and provide much-needed hydration, and lemon tea tree oil to soothe the scalp. It’s designed for curly and coily hair.
This treatment is designed to serve as your cleanser, conditioner, detangler, deep conditioner, and leave-in conditioner. It’s made with mineral-rich Moroccan Rhassoul clay, moisturizing aloe leaf, nourishing cocoa see butter, protective grapeseed oil, and moisturizing avocado oil. It’s meant for tight curls and coils.
This cleansing conditioner lightly cleanses the hair while keeping it moisturized. It contains coconut oil to enhance moisture control frizz, marula oil to support smoothness, and olive oil to moisturize and add shine and softness. It’s also free of parabens, silicone, and sulfates.
This conditioning co-cleanser from Drunk Elephant is designed to gently cleanse hair without any lather. It features rosehip fruit oil to nourish, marula oil to help moisturize, add shine, and smooth the hair shaft, and sacha inchi seed oil to add shine and help offset the damage done by heat styling. It’s designed to work for all hair types.
Made for waves, curls, and kinks, this cleaning conditioner from Carol’s Daughter provides gentle cleansing and is made with agave nectar to detangle, deeply moisturize, and condition hair and along with vitamin B5 and biotin to strengthen.
This Oribe cleansing cream uses fruit extracts and purifying oils to gently remove buildup, dirt, and impurities without stripping away natural oils. It also contains a water mint essence to soothe and the Oribe Signature Complex to defend hair from environmental elements, oxidative stress, photoaging, and the deterioration of natural keratin.
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