Should You Use Shampoo or Conditioner First? It Depends
As we mature, so do our self-grooming habits. The days of coming home from high school soccer practice and running a bar of soap over my buzz cut are over. That version of me didn’t know the nuances between shampoo and conditioner, nor did he really care. He had bigger fish to fry, like finding a date to prom and making varsity.
But now, as a grown man with a full plate of responsibilities and a full mane of thick, wavy hair, my priorities have matured as well. I know that just washing my hair isn’t enough. I need to know how to wash and what products to use.
Traditional wisdom tells us that shampoo always comes before conditioner. Traditional wisdom also told us that the food pyramid, and 11 daily servings of wheat and grains, was the best way to a healthy body. So yeah, maybe it’s time we ask if traditional wisdom is really on our side or whether these ‘traditions’ are just another mantra of Big Advertising.
So in the interest of our hair, it’s time to take a closer look at our shampooing and conditioning methods and decide where on the shampoo or conditioner first line we want to stand.
Understanding Hair Products
Before we look at techniques, we need to understand the products.
In hair care, the main tools of the trade are ones you probably recognize—shampoo and conditioner. Each one serves a different, unique, hair-healthy purpose.
Understanding our hair is important as well.
Hair itself is dead—like fingernails—which is why it doesn’t hurt when you cut it. But the follicle, the root in your skin where the hair grows, is very much alive, which is why hair gets longer and also why it hurts to pull your hair. And it may not be a surprise, but the follicle and the hair are each treated differently; hence the two products, shampoo, and conditioner.
Shampoo – Focused on Your Scalp
Shampoo is geared towards the scalp. It helps to clean the skin and remove toxins and dead skin from the surface of the scalp. It also removes oil from the scalp and the hair.
Here is where the one-size-fits-all model doesn’t actually fit.
Oil produced by the skin, known as sebum, is your body’s natural way to moisturize and protect the skin. Sebum is found all over the body, including the scalp. But because of all of the hair on your head (or lack thereof, depending), the amount of sebum can vary. Dense, thick hair can trap sebum, causing a buildup. Thin hair can become overly oily. Too much washing can remove the sebum, causing an itchy, flaky scalp.
The goal with shampoo is to find that sweet spot—to use shampoo to clean the skin, and maintain your ideal, individual level of natural scalp oil. It’s also important to select the right shampoo for you. You can opt for a variety of scents, feels, and clean sensations after washing. I personally like to choose a shampoo based on ingredients, like the Beardbrand Shampoo, which is free of silicones, parabens, and sulfates.
Conditioner – Designed For Your Hair
Unlike shampoo, conditioner is geared towards the hair. Just because the strands of hair on your head are full of no-longer-living cells doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be cared for.
Conditioner is designed to moisturize and nourish the hair, while detangling and smoothing the hair strands, making them softer and easier to manage. It also protects the hair shafts from damage, like breakage. Too little care can lead to split ends, hair breakage, or clumped, tangled hair. Beardbrand Conditioner uses a Shea-butter-based formula and is explicitly formulated to avoid skin irritation and product buildup while allowing your body to maintain a healthy amount of its natural oil.
But knowing what shampoos and conditioners do doesn’t mean you know how and when to use them.
There are three main methods of washing your mane:
- The traditional method: shampoo followed by conditioner.
- Co-washing: conditioner only.
- The new school reverse method: conditioner followed by shampoo.
Depending on your hair type, your natural oil levels, and your level of adventurousness will determine where amongst these three methods you best land.
TRADITIONAL: SHAMPOO FIRST, THEN CONDITIONER
First up: ye ole tried and true, traditional method—shampoo then conditioner.
Like many time-honed practices, there is wisdom here. Covering a wide variety of hair types, this should be the go-to method for a high percentage of guys out there. Think of it as a methodical, functional, top-down approach. You start at the root, washing your scalp and follicles, and then you make your way down to the hair, cleansing and nourishing your locks. It makes sense because it makes sense.
But don’t be fooled—it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. Yes, the order of operations may be simple, but the frequency with which you wash is an important variable. Most of us were taught to wash our hair every time we showered. This means we are washing our heads at least once a day, and for the extra active man, there can be multiple showers in a day. That level of washing can be very damaging—to the scalp, to the follicles, and to your hair. For most of us, washing our hair three times per week is a good benchmark place to start, and you can adjust to more or less from there.
The best part about this is that your scalp will let you know. Getting dry and itchy? You’re probably washing too much and are taking away too much oil. Getting excessively oily? Maybe kick up that regimen a notch. So find your balance, whether it’s four times a week or once.
The only right answer is the answer that’s right for you.
(Note: How you wash is also important, but too deep of a rabbit hole to go into here. For a deeper dive into the traditional hair washing method, check out Shamp Like a Champ: How to Wash Your Hair.
CO-WASHING (CONDITIONER WASHING)
The traditional method doesn’t work for everyone—and that’s totally fine. For those who aren’t in the majority, there is another well-proven method—Co-Washing.
Co-Washing (short for conditioner washing) is when you wash your hair with just conditioner, rather than always cleansing your hair with both conditioner and shampoo. In practice, this means washing your hair daily with conditioner and only occasionally using shampoo for a deeper scalp cleanse. This is especially good for guys with really thick, curly, or coarse hair—especially if it’s long. If you are plagued by dry, frizzy hair, try co-washing.
Like the traditional method, co-washing is all about finding the right balance for your head of lettuce. We suggest using shampoo 1-2 times per week and then adjusting from there. Some use shampoo every other week. Others go completely off the stuff—a method referred to as No Poo.
Once again, there is no one-size-fits-all to the co-washing method. The frequency and balance is unique to each man and up to you to discover on your own.
REVERSE WASHING: CONDITIONER FIRST, THEN SHAMPOO
If shampoo first followed by conditioner is the traditional method, and co-washing is the modern take, then reverse washing is the controversial, new-school technique that we’re not quite sure what to do with.
How does it work? It’s just like it sounds. You first condition your hair with a conditioner and then wash it with shampoo.
Yes, this goes against most of what we discussed earlier in the article. But there may be something to be said about this new madness, especially if your hair is thin and oily.
For guys with thin, flat, oily hair, there's a growing movement of people finding that this method leads to healthy, better-looking, more manageable hair. Why? Well, for this hair type, conditioner can be too heavy, weighing down the hair and leaving it looking oily and flat. By swapping the order, you can give your hair all of the nourishing benefits of the conditioner and then have all that added weight of the conditioner washed away by the shampoo.
As we said before, the jury is still out on this fringe method to tame your fringe. But if your hair consistently remains flat and oily, and the other methods aren’t working, it could be worth it to be bold and flip the order of your hair-washing routine.
Have questions about your hair or beard? Text "STYLE" to 512-879-3297. Our resident beard and style expert will text you back with personalized advice—for free.
Keep on Growing.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan is a writer and rock-climbing routesetter currently based out of Stavanger, Norway. He has worked as a magazine editor, a corporate storyteller, and his fiction is represented by Jabberwocky Literary Agency. When he’s not wielding words or making people fall off walls, he’s probably outside somewhere, hiking or climbing or surfing poorly.