From 3-in-1 Bath Products to Co-Washing: The Truth Behind Hair Care Trends

Are 3-in-1 bath products an amazing opportunity to consolidate products or a menace to your hair and skin? What about the concept of cleansing conditioners, or the even more radical idea that you don’t need to wash your hair with anything but water? That’s the topic of this article, which looks at these conflicting hair care trends.

3-in-1 and 2-in-1 Hair Care Products

Let’s start with the marketing gimmick that won’t seem to die: 3-in-1 gels that promise to shampoo and condition your hair and clean your skin.

The original impetus behind combination products came from Procter & Gamble and Pantene in the 1980’s, when the companies realized that consumers weren’t using conditioner enough, resulting in dry, tangled hair. Brands started to add conditioning agents to shampoo. Then they realized this was a major marketing opportunity: by telling the world their ingredients could wash and condition hair, they were getting more bang for their buck, a 2-1 solution.

Experts were initially not too bullish about the idea, mostly because the entire purpose of shampoo was to remove everything from the hair, whereas conditioner leaves something behind. However, Procter & Gamble, which owns Pantene, used a special ingredient  called Polyquaternium-10 that did remain on the hair after the wash. The products were successful, at least to consumers, and they became a staple in many homes.

The Problem

Although many people swear by the 2-in-1 products, there are a few problems with the product. When chemists make a combo product, they add a silicone agent to and a suspending agent to ensure the silicone agent does not separate out. The silicone agent is essentially Dimethicone, which is similar to the agent used back in the original Pantene 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner. The suspending agent is meant to keep the silicone in the formula. The silicone stays on your hair to provide the conditioning effect. However, for some people, eventually the silicone causes a buildup on the hair, creating a certain dullness. If you use a combo product and experience this, it can be resolved by simply washing your hair with regular shampoo once in a while to clean the hair. Complicating the issue is that the silicone deposits could also be caused by other hair styling products as well.

3-in-1 Shampoo/Conditioner/Body Wash

Turning now to the latest evolution of the all-in-one product, the 3-in-1 Shampoo/Conditioner/Body Wash, we see that similar issues are at play. The chemicals that are used in shampoo are designed to clean the hair without stripping the oils that keep the hair looking healthy. This is at odds with the chemicals in body wash, which are designed to be friendly to the skin. Most body wash is an emulsion of water and detergent, with additional ingredients meant to gently condition the skin. In other words, both body wash and shampoo contain both cleaning agents to remove dirt and moisturizing agents to protect the hair and skin from getting too dry.

So can there be overlap between the chemicals used in shampoo and body wash? There is some, but this is not a given. Shampoo contains more surfactants, but fewer fillers and anti-bacterial chemicals. Body wash has more antibacterial agents, things that may not be appropriate for the hair on your head.

The 3-in-1 products also depend on proprietary chemicals developed by brand leaders like Procter & Gamble. The products are considered safe, but for people with specific conditions, like dandruff, or who have chemically treated or processed hair, these products probably won’t keep your hair looking healthy.

Surfactants are the boogeymen of hair care in the 21st century. This includes sulfates, and many consumers believe that sulfates strip the hair of important oils. As a result, it is now possible to buy shampoo that contains no sulfates. If you want to be sulfate-free, then the 2-in-1 and 3-in-1 products are not for you.

This brings up two more interesting trends: “washing” your hair with just conditioner (co-washing) and not washing your hair at all. Both trends are deeply tied to the concept of having shiny, natural-looking hair.

The Dirty Secret Behind Cleansing Conditioners

Co-shampoo is the nickname for cleansing conditioners. The cleansing conditioner trend was started by people who were concerned with putting too many chemicals on the hair. Companies responded by producing cleansing conditioners which are gentler for people who have dry hair, or very curly hair. For people with less oily hair, cleansing conditioner can keep the hair looking fresh and natural, locking in the moisture. Cleansing conditioners do keep the hair looking and feeling softer, provided you have coarse or dry hair to begin with.

While consumers were easily sucked in to the concept of co-washing, few realize that in reality they had just been punked: co-washing is essentially another form of 2-in-1 shampoo, with more conditioning agents than washing agents.

Moreover, co-washing may not have the benefits that the products promise. The FDA started investigating the first and most popular cleansing conditioner, WEN by Chaz Dean, after consumers complained that their hair was falling out! The FDA receive over 120 complaints. To put that in perspective, in 2007, the FDA only received 200 complaints for all bath and body products combined. As the agency started to investigate, they discovered that WEN had received an astonishing 21,000 complaints about is products. Clearly something had gone very wrong. The company eventually settled a $26 million class action lawsuit.

Despite this situation, many websites today still promote and WEN co-washing products. If you are tempted to give them a try, be sure you do your homework.

Do You Even Need Shampoo?

All of this many lead you to the conclusion that shampoo and conditioners are just too dangerous. The idea behind no-poo is that we all use too much shampoo and it winds up hurting the hair. The idea is that you can wash your hair with just water alone. The typical description is that after a few weeks, your hair will no longer look matted or dirty. Instead the hair’s natural oils will take over and leave you with lustrous, amazing hair.

But what does the science say?

Chemists insist that there is little evidence that shampoo hurts the hair, since the chemicals do not get inside the hair follicle.  The notion that shampoo is worse than dirt is mostly bunk. Shampoo rids the hair of the oily and waxy buildup of glands in your scalp, which is called sebum. The chemicals in shampoo bind to sebum and water, combining to strip out the sebum. Experts say that water alone will not remove sebum from your hair.

Although it’s true that shampoo can leave your hair dry, that’s sort of the point. Consumers should use a little less shampoo and avoid shampooing every single day. And there’s always conditioner.

Of course, those who have jumped on the no-poo trend have come up with alternatives to shampoo that are meant to wash out dirt and sebum. The most common is vinegar and baking soda. However, scientists say you should not put vinegar and baking soda on your hair. The resulting solution is very abrasive. Just because it’s deemed “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe for your hair, and baking soda can actually be harmful.

So What Should Consumers Do?

If you don’t color treat your hair, have condition like dandruff or experience an itchy, irritated scalp, then by all means, use a 2-in-1 if you feel the need. It could save you money and a few minutes of time. If this feels like it would be worth it, then go ahead.

But in reality, you can save the same amount of money and time by washing your hair every other day or every third day. You don’t need to condition your hair every time you shampoo, either  – unless you have very dry or coarse hair.

If you are someone who hates the idea of the 2-in-1 or 3-in-1 combination products, then you should not attempt to use cleansing conditioners, since it’s the same exact product.

As for not using shampoo, all you can do is try it out and see if you can stand it. If you do, avoid using home remedies like vinegar and baking soda combinations. If your hair needs something to actually look and feel clean, then you are better off finding a gentle shampoo.

Finally, make sure your choices are guided by your hair type. Consider whether it has been color treated, whether your hair is oily or dry, and whether you have any other condition. That’s the simplest way to determine what works best for you.

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