Today we’re going to make three different easy co-washes (or cleansing conditioners), and I’ll also be sharing some ideas and pointers to help you customize these formulations to create something that’s perfect for your hair. Let’s dive in!
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What is co-washing?
Co-washing, short for “conditioner only” washing, is just what it sounds like—it’s washing your with only conditioner! I can’t remember when I first heard about co-washing, but it was probably close to a decade ago. According to HairStory, co-washing comes from the curly hair community, which makes lots of sense as lots of folks with curly hair report great results from washing with just conditioner.
What is a co-wash (or cleansing conditioner)?
Cleansing conditioners, or co-washes, are a gentle product for cleansing and conditioning your hair. There can be slight formulation differences from regular conditioners, depending on the hair the conditioner is designed for and the desired level of cleansing, but many rinse-out conditioners also work well for co-washing. Some co-wash conditioners contain small percentages of foaming surfactants for improved rinse-out/cleansing, but they don’t have to. They are usually formulated without any ingredients that can cause build-up, and can be thinner than regular conditioners. Generally, though, if a conditioner works to cleanse your hair, that’s a cleansing conditioner for you!
Examples of commercially available cleansing conditioners include HairStory, Curl Girl Nordic’s Co-Wash, and Eden Bodyworks’ Coconut Shea Cleansing CoWash. Recommendations from Reddit’s Curly Hair subreddit include TRESemmé’s Botanique Coconut Nourish Conditioner and conditioners from V05; you’ll notice these products aren’t marketed as co-wash products.
I love using cleansing conditioner for post workout hair washes when I know I’ll be working out (and showering) the following day, too. My hair still feels clean, but it’s not quite as clean (or time consuming!) as a full shampoo and condition. They can be great options for people with curly hair, dry hair, colour treated hair, and anyone else who is looking for a gentle & easy way to wash their hair. I encourage you to research and experiment to find what works for you!
If you’d like to learn more about formulating hair conditioner, I highly recommend my Super Simple Creamy Hair Conditioner: 3 Ways post, and the follow-up: 2 Creamy Conditioners with BTMS-25: Light & Rich.
How do co-washes differ from conditioning shampoos and 2-in-1 products?
Co-washes are very, very similar to creamy conditioners. The bulk of the functional ingredients are conditioning and emollient ingredients; they do not lather. A conditioner does not have to be marketed as a co-wash to work as one.
A 2-in-1 product is primarily a shampoo with a small amount of conditioning ingredients added. Cleansing, foaming surfactants like Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLeS), Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), and Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate are typically found within the first 2–4 ingredients, while conditioning ingredients like cationic guar gum and Polyquaternium 10 are found towards the end of the ingredient list. These products lather up as you’d expect a typical shampoo to do. Lots of “plain” shampoos also have really similar ingredient lists, so one could argue that 2-in-1 is more of a marketing difference than a formulation difference.
Conditioning shampoos are more of a hybrid between a conditioner and a shampoo; as I’m writing this post, this is a smaller category of product than conditioners and 2-in-1 products. They contain more conditioning and emollient ingredients than 2-in-1 products, but more cleansing surfactants than conditioners and cleansing conditioners. You’ll typically get some lather action from a conditioning shampoo, but not as much as from a 2-in-1 or traditional shampoo.
How to you use a co-wash?
I use co-washes the same way I use shampoo and conditioner; I massage it into my scalp (like I would with shampoo) and work it into the length of my hair (like I would with conditioner). I then rinse very thoroughly. I don’t follow up with a second conditioning step, but Reddit’s Curly Hair subreddit recommends this as part of their Beginner Curly Routine.
Why are co-washes the ideal DIY?
The downside of cleansing conditioners is that you need a lot for every wash. My hair is currently shoulder length and I need about 50g (1.76oz) of cleansing conditioner to get it clean; it was a lot more when my hair was longer!
Since cleansing conditioner is mostly water, it’s often way cheaper to make it yourself—especially if you’ve been purchasing a pricey marketed-as-co-wash product like HairStory. The formulations I’m sharing today work out to approximately $1.82, $2.39, and $4.09CAD for 8oz. most complex (and most expensive) of the three formulations I’m sharing today for less than 10% of the price of HairStory (which is $59CAD/8oz). It’s not exactly the same product, but it’s still a lovely, gentle cleanser that leaves your hair feeling divine.
Another major bonus of DIYing your co-wash is reduced plastic consumption; you can simply re-fill your bottle rather than buying a new one every 5–10 washes (just don’t try to wash the cap—that generally leads to trapping a diluted [and inadequately preserved] mixture of product somewhere in its complex nooks & crannies that will go mouldy).
Where can I get the ingredients?
Most of these ingredients are commonly available from shops that specialize in selling ingredients for cosmetic/skincare/haircare formulation; I’ve linked to lots of them all over the world here.
YellowBee has put together a kit of the ingredients you’ll need and is selling it at a bit of a discount; you can find it here. The only thing that isn’t in the kit is distilled water—I buy mine at the grocery store for about $3/4L. The YellowBee kit includes enough ingredients to make 6kg (13lb+!) of cleansing conditioner! (This isn’t sponsored.)
You’ll need just six ingredients for this first formulation, which keeps things nice and simple. We’re just cleansing and conditioning with this one!
BTMS-50 (INCI: Behentrimonium Methosulfate [and] Cetyl Alcohol [and] Butylene Glycol) is both the emulsifier and the conditioning ingredient in this formulation. It also brings some thickening, emollient, and humectant properties thanks to the cetyl alcohol and butylene glycol.
Compared to BTMS-25, BTMS-50 is twice as conditioning (it contains 50% behentrimonium methosulfate vs. the 25% of BTMS-25) and doesn’t thicken formulations nearly as much (it contains approximately 40% Cetyl Alcohol vs. the 75% Cetearyl Alcohol content of BTMS-25). You can use BTMS-25 instead of BTMS-50 in these formulations; this swap will result in a less conditioning, thicker final formulation.
This is the foaming surfactant in the formulation that boosts the cleansing power of this formulation a bit beyond that of a regular creamy conditioner. I like to use amphoteric surfactants in cleansing conditioners; Cocamidopropyl Betaine is great and easy to get; I’ve also used Sodium Cocoamphoacetate. These surfactants are gentle, and I find they don’t challenge emulsion stability quite as much as non-ionic surfactants (like Coco Glucoside) and anionic surfactants (examples include Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate and Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate).
If you don’t have Cocamidopropyl Betaine you could use a different amphoteric surfactant instead. I have not tested this series of formulations with non-ionic or anionic surfactants.
The surfactant causes the viscosity of the emulsion to drop quite a lot—I’ve had formulations go from a creamy lotion consistency to a completely fluid milk with the addition of just 4% Cocamidopropyl Betaine! A small amount of cetyl alcohol helps counter that viscosity drop and keep the emulsion stable, as really thin emulsions are often prone to splitting.
You could use other ingredients to boost viscosity and improve stability, like Cetearyl Alcohol and Polyquaternium 10. I chose cetyl alcohol because it’s slippy and silky, but cetearyl alcohol would be a good 1-for-1 alternative if that’s what you have.
Apricot kernel oil
Including an oil in this formulation boosts viscosity by increasing the size of the oil phase. It also adds richness and emollience.
Apricot kernel oil is a relatively inexpensive, light liquid oil that is likely to have some hair-penetrating properties; I chose it because it’s average-ish in that respect. Learn more about oils in haircare (which ones coat, which ones absorb, which ones do a bit of both, and why it matters) with this fabulous post from the Science-y Hair Blog: Oils – Which Ones Soak In vs. Coat the Hair?
You can use a different liquid oil instead of apricot kernel oil. Experiment and have fun!
Distilled water is the diluent and solvent for this formulation. Water softens the BTMS-50 so it’s creamy and able to do its conditioning job. It also dilutes the BTMS-50; it’s effective at low concentrations, so even if we could use straight BTMS-50 in our hair, there’s no need to.
Liquid Germall™ Plus
Liquid Germall™ Plus (INCI: Propylene Glycol, Diazolidinyl Urea, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate) is our broad spectrum preservative; it keeps the hair conditioner from turning into a mould factory in your shower. You could use a different preservative, you’d just need to be sure it’s compatible with cationics and that you meet its needs (pH being a big one!). Learn more about that here.
Super Simple Cleansing Conditioner #1
Prepare a water bath by bringing about 3cm/1″ of water to a bare simmer over low to medium-low heat in a wide, flat-bottomed sauté pan.
Weigh the heated water phase into a small heat-resistant glass measuring cup or glass beaker. Weigh the entire lot (measuring cup + ingredients) and note that weight for use later. Weigh the heated oil phase into a second heat-resistant glass measuring cup. Place both measuring cups in your prepared water bath to melt everything through.
If you’re using borosilicate beakers you can also place them over low, direct heat. I used my Hot Plate for these formulations; you could also use a glass-top stove on the lowest setting, or put your beakers (or other oven-safe vessel) on a cookie sheet and put them in an oven set to approximately 80°C (176F).
After about 20–30 minutes the oil part should be completely melted and the water part should be thoroughly dissolved. BTMS-50 can be stubborn about melting in water baths, so feel free to give it a bit of a melting boost with 15–20 seconds in the microwave. Remove the water bath from the heat and weigh the water phase. Add enough hot distilled water to the heated water phase to bring the weight back up to what it was before heating, and then pour the water part into the oil part. Stir with a flexible silicone spatula to incorporate.
Grab your immersion blender and begin blending the lotion, starting with short bursts so the still-very-liquid lotion doesn’t whirl up and spray everywhere. Blend for about a minute before switching to hand stirring. You’ll need to be fairly diligent with the stirring at first, but once the mixture has thickened up a bit and is uniform you can switch to stirring occasionally. Once the outside of the glass measuring cup is just warm to the touch (40°C or cooler, if you have a thermometer) we’re ready to proceed.
Now it’s time to incorporate our cool down ingredients. Because cool down ingredients are typically present at very low amounts you’ll need to use an accurate scale—preferably one accurate to 0.01g. As these more accurate scales tend to have fairly low (100–200g) maximum weights you won’t be able to put the entire batch of lotion on that scale without blowing it out. So—grab a smaller dish. Add a scoop or two of lotion, and then weigh the cool down ingredients into that, using the more accurate scale. Stir to thoroughly incorporate, and then stir all of that back into the master batch of lotion. Doing it this way minimizes the amount of cool down ingredients lost to the secondary container.
Once the cool down phase has been incorporated, all that’s left to do is package it up! I recommend some sort of squeeze tube or bottle for this formulation.
Shelf Life & Storage
Because this conditioner contains water, you must include a broad-spectrum preservative to ward off microbial growth. This is non-optional. Even with a preservative, this project may eventually spoil as our kitchens are not sterile laboratories, so in the event you notice any change in colour, scent, or texture, chuck it out and make a fresh batch.
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This formulation is different from the first in three ways:
- It’s a bit thicker and richer thanks to 2% more liquid oil.
- It contains some panthenol for added shine and moisturizing.
- It smells pretty!
The extra ingredients
Panthenol (Vitamin B5)
Just 0.5% powdered vitamin B5 helps boost shine and moisturize the hair. Panthenol is one of the key ingredients in Pantene ProV; the V is 5 in Roman numerals! You really don’t need much panthenol to be effective in hair products, so I don’t recommend using more. If your panthenol is liquid, check to see how concentrated it is and adjust the usage rate as required to keep the overall panthenol concentration at 0.5%. For example, if it’s 50% concentrated, you’ll need twice as much (1%). Reduce the distilled water by 0.5% to make room in the formulation.
A small amount of fragrance makes the cleansing conditioner—and your hair—smell nice. I’m currently loving Baja Cactus Blossom (a BBW dupe) from YellowBee (gifted). You could use an essential oil instead, just be sure whatever you use is allowed at 0.5% in rinse-off hair formulations.
Super Simple Cleansing Conditioner #2
Follow the same instructions as for formulation #1.
This last ingredient is the richest and most complex. I’ve added some shea butter and increased the concentration of BTMS-50 for more richness and conditioning, and included a hydrolyzed protein for added haircare benefits. I designed this formulation for drier hair types.
The extra ingredients
Creamy shea butter noticeably boosts the richness of this co-wash; even though this formulation includes an extra 1% Cocamidopropyl Betaine, this conditioner is not as cleansing as the previous two. It still gets my hair clean, but I need to swap in a full shampoo more often if I’m using this formulation vs. #1 or #2.
The last fancy-conditioner ingredient is 2% Hydrolyzed Rice Protein. I chose this particular hydrolyzed protein because it helps with volumizing the hair, and that’s something I’m always interested in!
You can definitely use a different hydrolyzed protein instead if you prefer; there are quite a few to choose from. They all have different benefits, ranging from moisturizing to protecting the hair to adding shine! Learn more here:
- Hydrolyzed Oat Protein
- Hydrolyzed Baobab Protein
- Hydrolyzed Quinoa Protein
- Hydrolyzed Silk
- Plant-derived keratin alternatives
If you don’t have a hydrolyzed protein you could use a humectant like Vegetable Glycerin or Propanediol 1,3 instead. You could also use a different hair-awesome active that you might have on hand as long; just be sure to follow the recommended usage rate and make sure it’s compatible with everything else in the formulation (it probably will be).
Super Simple Cleansing Conditioner #3
Follow the same instructions as for formulation #1.
Can I use BTMS-25 instead of BTMS-50?
Yes; you can make a 1:1 substitution for a less conditioning, but thicker formulation.
You can double the amount of BTMS to get the same % of behentrimonium methosulfate in the finished formulations, but you’ll end up with a much thicker formulation. If you do this, I’d drop the cetyl alcohol from the formulations. Adjust the distilled water to keep the formulation in balance.
Are there natural alternatives for BTMS-50?
There are natural cationic emulsifiers, but every single one I’ve tried has been, at best, meh. I don’t hate Varisoft® EQ 65 (Distearoylethyl Dimonium Chloride, Cetearyl Alcohol). It will work, but nowhere near as well as BTMS-50 does. Do not waste your money on Emulsense HC.
Can I use these as leave-in conditioners?
You can, but you’ll want to drop the Cocamidopropyl Betaine (replace it with more water) as this can make hair crunchy in leave-in applications.
How can I keep playing with cleansing conditioner formulations?
Here’s a few ideas for your continued formulation explorations:
- Try a different liquid oil, or blend of liquid oils; experiment with oils that coat vs. penetrate the hair
- Try a different butter
- Try using all butters instead of a butter and an oil
- Try cetearyl alcohol instead of cetyl alcohol
- Try different hydrolyzed proteins
- Experiment with adding humectants to the formulation
Where can I learn more about conditioner formulation?
Check out my Super Simple Creamy Hair Conditioner: 3 Ways post and video from earlier this year; there’s tons of information that is very applicable to cleansing conditioners as well!
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The cetyl alcohol, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, panthenol (Vitamin B5), apricot kernel oil, shea butter, rice protein, and fragrance oil were gifted by YellowBee.
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