This is my first winter with curly hair. Or rather, this is my first winter with curly hair that I haven’t tried to straighten. About a year ago, I went on a journey of curl acceptance, but years of blow-drying, straightening, and cutting my hair short meant that I had no idea how to care for my natural rings. So I turned to co-washes, also known as conditioning washes, which beauty enthusiasts have known about for years. The stuff washes and preserves curls without stripping hair of its natural oils like detergent shampoos, and they’re especially useful for curly-haired people, for whom dehydration is enemy No. 1. Without enough moisture, curls can frizz and tangle (I learned this the hard way).
While women have long known about them, many men are still just getting hip to the idea — if you’re wondering how Shawn Mendes or Timothée Chalamet or Penn Badgley are getting that hair, yes, it’s partly the haircut, but it’s also a moisturizing shampoo (likely a co-wash or even just regular conditioner) and soft cream styling. Even men without curly hair would benefit from a co-wash. It creates the kind of hair that hasn’t been washed for three or four days — not dirty, but pliable and slightly shiny with natural oils — without grossness or smelliness. And though it’s hard to find a co-wash in the men’s aisle (there’s no “Sport” on these labels), I crossed the aisle and tried more than a dozen co-washes; these are my favorite for men’s hair (which, it should be noted, isn’t inherently different than women’s. Most, if not all, of the difference between men’s and women’s shampoos is scent).
Hairstory’s New Wash was one of the first co-washes recommended to me by a hairstylist friend. [Editor’s note: We’ve written about this before.] I loved it, but found that since I only wash my hair about once a week, it didn’t clean quite as well as I’d hoped (either that or my hair’s just too greasy). That changed when they released the new version — Deep is designed to clean a little more, with the additional of apple-cider vinegar (more on that below), but still preserve natural oils. Even when I go a little longer between washings, my scalp feels cleaner and I don’t have any product buildup after I use it. The best thing about Hair Story is that when you join the subscription program, they send a refillable metal bottle, so you don’t have to throw out a plastic bottle every month.
Best co-wash if you’re used to shampoo
One of the hardest things for me to get used to was co-wash texture. The stuff doesn’t lather, so it feels like you’re washing with conditioner, counterintuitive if you equate foam with cleaning power. R+Co’s Cleansing Foam Conditioner, however, comes out of the can plenty foamy, like a mousse, and helped me make the mental leap. It’s lightweight, too, which means it doesn’t feel like it takes forever to wash out of my hair. Since it’s airy and light, it won’t weigh down thin or straight hair and will give a nice day-between-washing look to any hair type.
Best drugstore co-washes
Of all the drugstore co-washes I tried, L’Oréal’s EverPure Cleansing Balm delivered the best results. It’s low-lather, which means it does have a bit more soap than some of the other brands, but it’s still sulfate-free and has enough moisturizing ingredients to keep my hair from getting dry and frizzy. In fact, it was moisturizing enough that I skipped my usual post-shower leave-in conditioner and my curls still came out shiny. The absence of sulfate also means it’s ideally suited for color-treated hair (though my hair is its natural color).
My other favorite drugstore find, Not Your Mother’s Clean Freak Cleansing Conditioner, is an effective and easy-to-use co-wash that left my hair feeling great. I found that I needed to use a bit more than some of the other brands (the pump comes in handy), but I didn’t mind since the price was right. The formula contains mint extract, which I felt helped cleanse my scalp well and reduced buildup from oil and products. And even with that mint, it didn’t make my hair feel stripped or too clean.
Best medium-weight co-wash
Some co-washes can be heavy, which is perfect if your hair is prone to dryness, but Shea Moisture’s Coconut & Hibiscus formula hits in the middle. It has the texture of a conditioner but doesn’t feel like a hair mask. The coconut oil helps moisturize and protect hair without making it feel greasy or slick. My favorite thing about this one is the scent, which makes me feel like I’m on a tropical vacation even in the dead of winter.
Best co-wash for thick hair
Nick Arrojo created a treatment called the American Wave, a kind of perm that creates wavy, beachy hair. He also launched an accompanying product line specifically designed to preserve curls, whether they’re natural or not. The Co-Cleanse is a particular standout and is one of the heavier co-washes I tried (in a good way). It’s like a particularly thick conditioner and contains vitamin E to help maintain the strength and health of each strand. It’s especially good for people with thick hair (like me), since it’s so moisturizing and thick that it may weigh down thinner hair.