Co-Wash, Low-Poo or Shampoo?

It used to be washing hair, now it is a maze of options with so many possible product combinations that it can be hard to know where to start (or stop, for that matter!)  We know a shampoo will clean our hair but will a co wash or low poo shampoo be as effective? Which one is best for the condition of our curls?

Curly hair wash days can be a complicated business and manufacturers are constantly bringing out new ways for us to wash our hair. 

I’m not complaining because I love to experiment with new products and as always, we KNOW there is that one perfect product out there..if we just keep searching..

A little guide is always handy, so let’s have a quick look at the main 3 options when it comes to curl-washing.

co wash loww poo and shampoo


Co-wash is a single product used to both cleanse and condition hair


‘Low Poo’ refers to a shampoo which is free from sulphates and is still intended for use with a conditioner


A shampoo usually containing sulphates which lathers up to remove dirt and grease. Intended for use with a conditioner

Curly hair usually benefits most from a co-wash or low-poo shampoo

curly girl method quiz

The sulphates in regular shampoo can be drying to the scalp and hair. The common cleansing sulphates are Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Sodium Laureth Sulphate, often labelled as SLS and SLES respectively. 

These ingredients are effective at creating a lather when you wash your hair. This bubbly lather then removes dirt and grease. 

Sounds good. What’s the problem?

The problem is that the hair’s natural oils are also removed by the shampoo.

This can leave hair dry. Curly hair already has a tendency to be dry due to the way that sebum is distributed down the hair shaft from the follicle. Curly hair needs to retain all the moisture that it can.

The dryness caused by shampoo prompts us to use conditioner to moisturise and soften hair again.

Most commercial conditioners contain silicones. These will coat the hair with a thin film which give the impression of moisturised, frizz-free hair.

The trouble is that silicones will build up over time if they are not water-soluble.

This leads to increased shampooing as hair begins to feel greasy and so the cycle continues.. 

A Better Way To Cleanse

The ideal way to cleanse is to remove dirt from the hair whilst still retaining the hair’s own natural moisture. 

A co-wash or low-poo shampoo will aim to do this.

Low-poo Products

Low-poo shampoos are often simply labelled as ‘sulphate free shampoo’. This means the same thing. Very few are actually labelled ‘low-poo’ on the bottle. 

Removing the sulphates means that these shampoos often don’t lather up as much as regular shampoo. This doesn’t mean that they are not working. 

It is still always worth checking the ingredients.

Most shampoos that are ‘sulphate-free’ will still contain a surfactant (cleansing agent).

They will have similar names such as ‘sodium lauroyl sarcosinate’. These are supposedly gentler than sulphates although there is actually little scientific proof of this. In fact, the cleansing agents found in sulphate-free shampoos can still be drying as they are designed to remove dirt and build-up from the hair. 

One particular ingredient to look out for is ‘olefin sulfonate’. This is sometimes used as a sulphate alternative but is also on the harsher side of cleansers.

The sites ‘Curlsbot‘ and ‘Is It CG?‘ will help. They flag up non-sulphate cleansers which they think require more research or which can be ok for occasional use but perhaps not everyday. Just find ingredients lists online and paste them in for the results.

In addition to this, sulphate-free cleansers can contain lots of conditioning ingredients, such as butters, to disguise the fact that they are drying. These conditioning ingredients can build up on the hair. 

Like we said at the beginning- it’s a minefield!

co-wash, low-poo or shampoo?

Should Low-Poo Be Avoided?

Definitely not. There is a good side to low-poo. A great side!

First of all, many manufacturers which have taken the time to develop low-poo alternatives to shampoo will also incorporate other factors to make their products more appealing to the ingredient-savvy consumer. Many will also be free from silicones, parabens and petrochemicals and cruelty-free. 

Secondly, there are low-poo shampoos available which are free from all harsh surfactants.

It really is a matter of weighing up what is most important to you. There are amazing sulphate-free low-poo shampoos out there. If you find one that matches up to your values and makes your hair feel amazing without drying it out, then go for it!


This is where the Curly Girl Method comes in.

The rules set out in the Curly Girl Method state that conditioning cleansers should be used instead of shampoo. 

The cleanser should be free from sulphates, silicones, alcohols, waxes, non-natural oils and other non-soluble ingredients.

Heavy ingredients such as waxes, some oils and non-solubles are a problem because they can build up on the hair. If your only method of cleansing contains these ingredients they will eventually build up and lead to greasy hair and clogged follicles which can affect hair growth.

A good co-wash should contain botanically derived, water soluble ingredients.

The Right Technique

Technique is also important when it comes to effective co-washing.

scrubbing hair with co-wash

In order to remove oils and dirt with a conditioning cleanser you have to create an emulsion. This is what binds the dirt with the water that you are using. Emulsifying requires a lot of scrubbing. First scrub the scalp to remove dirt and oil and then scrub some more to create a low lather to remove it from the hair. 

Even with the correct product and technique, some conditioner will always be deposited on the hair by co-washing. For this reason it is usually best done in between washes with a low-poo shampoo.

From my own experince and stories from other curly-haired people, co-washing alone is usually too heavy for prolonged continual use. It works best when used alongside other cleansing methods such as a low-poo shampoo.

Experimentation is key with a co wash or low poo shampoo. Some people will co-wash every other wash, and others once a month. Hair density and texture will affect your results. 

In Addition – Clarifying Shampoos

When heavy build-up occurs, clarifying can be the answer. Clarifying shampoos can remove product build up (including non-water-soluble silicones), dirt, pollution and chlorine from hair.

They can contain sulphates (in fact most regular sulphate shampoos can be used to clarify) or they can be sulphate-free. 

It is popular to use a clarifying shampoo one last time before beginning a stricter curly girl washing regime to remove any pre-existing build-up. 

It is also common to do a clarifying shampoo around once a month alongside low-poo washing and co-washing to prevent build up of any conditioning ingredients. 

In Conclusion

Curly hair will usually react best to a gentle, moisturising, sulphate free shampoo. A low-poo.

This can be alternated with a co-wash. Co-washing works best on thicker curly hair which can take on the additional conditioning ingredients without being weighed down.

A regular shampoo should only really be used occasionally to clarify if build- up occurs but many curly haired people find that once they abandon sulphates they don’t look back!

Experimentation is key. Every head of curls will like a slightly different combination of products. Cleasing products that enhance curl wthout weighing hair down and allow you to go a few days in between washes are the goal!

Shop Co-Wash and Low-Poo Cleansers

– As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I receive a commission if you buy any of the products below through the links provided. It doesn’t affect the price you pay and helps to run this website. Thank you x


All these are sulphate free, Curly Girl Method Approved and free from olefin sulfonate

Jessicurl Curl Cleansing Cream

Boucleme Curl Cleanser

As I Am Coconut CoWash Cleansing Conditioner

Briogeo Curl Charisma Rice Amino + Shea Hydrating Co-Wash

Low-Poo Cleansers

These are sulphate free, Curly Girl Method Approved and free from olefin sulfonate

Noughty Wave Hello Curl Defining Shampoo

Boucleme Hydrating Curl Cleanser

Clarifying Shampoos

These clarifying shampoos DO NOT contain sulphates or olefin sulfonate

Noughty Detox Dynamo Clarifying Shampoo

As I Am Curl Clarity Shampoo

The following clarifying shampoos DO contain sulphates

Aveda Rosemary Mint Purifying Shampoo

Paul Mitchell Clarifying Shampoo Two

Lauren xx

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