Since surfactants (ingredients that help dirt and oil mix with water so that they can be rinsed away) have been acquiring an underserved bad reputation, many consumers are looking for gentler shampoos to wash their hair with. To meet this demand, many beauty brands are coming out with a new type of shampoo (or should I say conditioner?) that is surfactant-free yet claims to clean hair leaving it feeling soft and luxurious.
They differ from regular sulfate-free shampoos, because they also contain a high amount of conditioning agents. Because of this, they resemble more 2 in 1 shampoos, only the latter usually include stronger cleansing agents and thus, cleanse hair better. So, how well do cleansing conditioners clean hair instead?
How effective are cleansing conditioners?
To figure that out, we’ll start by looking at the ingredients of two cleansing conditioners. The first is from WEN, the brand that made this type of product popular, the second from L’Oreal:
Wen by Chaz Dean Sweet Almond Mint Cleansing Conditioner
Water, Glycerin, Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Prunus Serotina (Wild Cherry) Bark Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Vegetable Oil (Olus Oil), Panthenol, Butylene Glycol, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Polysorbate 60, PEG-60 Almond Glycerides, Amodimethicone, Citric Acid, Menthol, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Fragrance, Limonene, Hexyl Cinnamal, Linalool, Geraniol, Benzyl Benzoate, Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde, Hydroxycitronellal.C960
EverCreme Cleansing Conditioner
Water, Cetearyl Alcohol, Sodium Cocoamphopropionate, Hydroxpropyl Startch Phosphate, Behentrimonium Chloride, Fragrance, Isopropyl Alcohol, Capryl Glycol, Glycerin, Tocopherol, Hexyl Cinnamal, Linalool, Camelina Sativa Oil/Camelina Sativa Seed Oil, Prunus Armeniaca Kernal Oil/Apricot Kernal Oil, Vitis Vinefera Seed Oil/Grape Seed Oil, Caramel, CI 19140/Yellow 5.
The first thing that caught my eye was the lack of cleansing agents. The Wen conditioner only features Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine, a gentle cationic surfactant (a positively charged surfactant) made from vegetable oil. However, cationic surfactants have only mild cleansing properties. Instead, they are more commonly used as conditioning agents (often to replace silicones) for their ability to create a protective film on the hair which smooths out the cuticle, reduces tangle formation and makes hair soft to the touch.
The product also contains Cetearyl Alcohol and Cetyl Alcohol, two fatty acids with conditioning properties and only minimal ability to cleanse hair. Therefore, it’s not surprising that this cleansing conditioner has been getting so many bad reviews online. As a conditioner, it does its job ok, but there’s nothing in there that will clean your hair well. It may remove some of the dirt, but it definitely won’t clean hair as well as a regular shampoo. It can’t.
The L’Oreal cleansing conditioner contains Ceteary Alcohol and Sodium Cocoamphopropionate, a gentle surfactant made from fatty acids from coconut oil. It may work a bit better than the WEN one, provided that you have normal or dry hair and don’t use a lot of styling products. In fact, I doubt that these cleansing conditioners will even be able to remove the little buildup they themselves may leave on your hair, which after a few uses, can make your hair feel and look greasy and flat.
Are cleansing conditioners gentler?
Yes, they are. Because surfactants help get rid of dirt and oil from the body and hair, they can cause some dryness and irritation. But that doesn’t mean they will. Not all surfactants are created equal. Some, like Cocamidopropyl Betaine, are more delicate than others. In addition, how drying a formula is also depends on how high the concentration of a surfactant in a shampoo is and on whether the product also contains conditioning agents.
A well-formulated shampoo will cleanse hair without drying it and, if you really don’t like using surfactants, there are many surfactant-free shampoos out there that work much better than cleansing conditioners. Cleansing conditioners may be gentler, and remove the need for a separate conditioner, but if they don’t leave your hair clean, what’s the point of using them in place of shampoos? Just avoid shampoos with the harshest surfactants (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, TEA-Lauryl Sulfate, and Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate), which are rarely used these days anyway, and your hair will be fine.
The Bottom Line
Cleansing Conditioners use very mild surfactants and fatty acids, which are mainly moisturizers and have only a very limited ability to cleanse hair. Because of this, they won’t clean hair, nor remove product buildup, as well as regular or even 2 in 1 shampoos do. I definitely won’t be switching to them anytime soon.
Have you ever used cleansing conditioners? What do you think of them?