What You Need to Know About Cleansing Conditioners

The shampoo and conditioner combination isn't your only option.

woman smiling while washing hair in shower
Photo: Ridofranz / Getty Images

Have you ever washed your hair with shampoo and conditioner only to hop out of the shower and notice that, once it's dried, it just doesn't look right? This shower combination may be the standard, but it's not for everyone—in fact, many hairstylists tell their clients to say goodbye to shampoo (at least a few days each week) and switch to cleansing conditioners instead. These ultra-nourishing formulas have been around for years, all thanks to the co-wash trend. To help you determine whether or not a cleansing conditioner might be best for your hair, we asked the following experts for their insight.

Cleansing conditioners work on a myriad of hair types.

According to Thom Priano, a celebrity stylist and co-founder of R+Co, the biggest benefit of cleansing conditioners is their two-in-one power: They clean and condition at the same time. They also work across several hair types. "Cleansing conditioner is great for over-bleached or highlighted hair, dry, brittle hair, and also curly or frizzy hair; in all cases, it helps to mend the hair without an extra step," he explains. Kérastase artist Pepper Pastor agrees, noting that cleansing conditioners are especially great for anyone looking for a nourish treatment, and to prevent color loss: "I love using them on clients with color-treated hair—especially darker tones and reds, as they really preserve the color."

They're gentle.

Cleansing conditioners are much gentler than classic shampoo-and-conditioner combinations. The reason? According to SACHAJUAN creative director Trey Gillen, they're usually sulfate-free. "Since the harsh cleansing effect isn't there, the hair is cleansed less aggressively which doesn't dry it out," he says. Plus, they use emulsion technology and emollient oils to remove dirt, debris, and surface oils, all without over-stripping. "This allows the hair fibers to retain a proper balance of moisture," says trichologist and colorist Bridgette Hill of Paul Labrecque Salon and Skincare Spa.

They shouldn't replace shampoo.

But don't toss your shampoo just yet, however—there's a time and a place for sudsy, surfactant-based formulas. "If you feel the need to wash your hair every day—which most people really shouldn't—cleansing conditioners can be used as a substitute every few days, as they are much gentler on the hair," says Oribe educator Adam Livermore, who recommends the brand's Cleansing Crème for Moisture & Control ($46, dermstore.com). While they can be used as a substitute here and there, a deep cleanse—once or twice a week—is still beneficial to your scalp's health.

As a general rule of thumb, Livermore says that people with coarse, frizzy, or curly hair should use cleansing conditioners every other wash, alternating with the classic shampoo-and-conditioner pairing. This ultimately supports the hair follicle's lipid barrier and helps keep hair tamed and frizz-free. Gillen recommends that those with brittle or over-processed hair follow a similar schedule.

You likely won't feel squeaky clean.

When integrating a cleansing conditioner into your routine, you might notice the distinct absence of that "squeaky clean" feeling, especially if you're used to traditional shampoos. This can be jarring—but cleansing conditioners don't deliver that same sudsy experience that many of us have come to associate with clean hair. This is why Gillen suggests using them alongside—not instead of—shampoo and conditioner, and scrubbing vigorously for 15 to 30 seconds when you have them in your hair ("You need to use your fingers to knock all the oils and dirt free; then let it sit for a minute or two to give the conditioning properties time to do their job before you rinse out," he explains).

Think of it this way, says Hill: "I use the analogy of approaching cleansing conditioners as the 'gentle cycle' wash setting used for delicate fabrics," she explains, adding that she prefers Briogeo's gentle formula ($32, revolve.com). "Our hair fibers thrive from being gently cleansed. On the other hand, co-washes do not cleanse the scalp. You need to incorporate a deeper cleanse for cellular turnover on the scalp—and to remove debris and buildup at the roots and on the underside of the hair cuticle."

Check for nourishing ingredients.

Pastor says that, above all else, conditioning cleansers should be gentle. "Ideally, you want to find a product that is free of sulfates and does not cleanse the hair in an aggressive manner," she says. To do so, Hill notes to look for products chock full of fatty acids, like those formulated with avocado, coconut, shea oils, and butters.

And while selecting formulas that are sulfate- and paraben-free should ensure a quality cleansing conditioner, Gillen explains you can put the product through a suds test at home. "A true sulfate-free formula will not lather at all—it will perform like a conditioner, which is better for stressed-out hair," he says, adding that Sachajuan's Hair Cleansing Cream ($42, dermstore.com) checks this box.

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