How to Know If You Should Use a Clarifying Shampoo

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Lather, rinse, repeat. We all know how to shampoo, but finding the right product to use isn’t always so simple. There are plenty of them on the market — exfoliating, volumizing, brass-busting — but clarifying shampoos have the most confusing nomenclature. Like, what is a clarifying shampoo anyway? Doesn't it do the job of a standard shampoo? What makes it different? For answers, we chatted with experts in the know for insight as to what "clarifying" really means.

First off, clarifying shampoos are deep cleansers that aim to remove residue and buildup. Hairstylist Cash Lawless notes that your stylist may suggest one based on these factors: the amount of buildup you've got, your porosity (how well your hair can absorb moisture), how often you use product, your natural sebum production, styling routine, heat usage, and if your hair is color-treated.

"Do you use leave-in hair products? Do you heat style? Most importantly, does your hair feel dull, limp, heavy, or dirty after washing it? If so, then it’s time to clarify," says Lawless. Those with color-treated hair should be extra careful with clarifying shampoos. Many formulas can change your color — especially deposited color — so Lawless suggests clarifying if needed before getting a dye job.

Clarifying shampoos have a reputation for stripping hair, because, well, they're meant to eliminate buildup. Cosmetic chemist Ginger King says that many clarifying shampoos use chelating agents like EDTA and tetrasodium EDTA, which latch on to metal ions that may be in your water. "[Their] function is to 'chelate' (form a bond with) metal ions in water so that the water is softer and better for the hair," she says. She notes that while EDTAs are less harsh on your strands than other surfactants, that doesn't mean they can't be stripping and drying. This is why some brands add moisturizing agents to their clarifiers.

But there are some clarifying shampoos without EDTAs in their formulas. King mentions that EDTAs can cause sensitivity for some people over time, but other than that, "there are no health concerns." So, the point remains: Use clarifying shampoos sparingly and only when you need them.

As for how often you should use them, "It’s a personal decision,” says Lawless. "But in general, I recommend every two weeks for those who use styling products, [as well as] heat and who don’t wash every day."

Now that you've got the lowdown on clarifying shampoos, check out the ones hairstylists recommend.

Moroccanoil Clarifying Shampoo

No matter what your hair texture is like, hairstylist Takisha Sturdivant-Drew recommends the Moroccanoil Clarifying Shampoo. "It’s deep cleansing, removes everyday buildup, and restores your hair and scalp to a healthy balance," she says. Another plus? It’s filled with argan and avocado oils so it won't be too harsh on your hair.

Christophe Robin Cleansing Purifying Scrub With Sea Salt

Have a sensitive or oily scalp? The Christophe Robin Cleansing Purifying Scrub With Sea Salt doubles as a shampoo. Lisa Weller, hairstylist and owner of Twirl Salon in San Antonio, Texas, is a fan. "I think it’s a really fun and unique alternative [to other clarifying shampoos] because it has moisturizing properties while it cleanses the hair. People get hooked on it."

Nexxus Clean and Pure Nourishing Detox Shampoo

Nexxus's Clean and Pure Nourishing Detox Shampoo might be lightweight, but it brings major results. "It’s great for removing buildup in your hair, especially for those who like to layer products throughout the week," says hairstylist Lacy Redway, who is an ambassador for the brand. "Also, it helps rebalance the pH in your hair and hydrates it."

Kenra Clarifying Shampoo

"This works well for those with color-treated hair as it helps [keep] your color from getting dull," says Redway of Kenra's Clarifying Shampoo. "It’s also great for removing buildup or if you’re in an area that has hard water and do not have a filter in your shower." For an extra layer of protection, add it once a week to Kenra’s Color Maintenance System to remove color-dulling deposits.

Suave Essentials Daily Clarifying Shampoo

This pick from Lawless is pH-balanced and hypoallergenic, too. "Clarifying shampoos contain strong cleansing ingredients to fully remove dirt, oil, and residue from previous hair products," says Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital. "While effective, they may cause dryness of the hair and the scalp. This shampoo uses a surfactant known as sodium laureth sulfate for a deep clean." King notes: "Sodium laureth sulfate is milder than sodium lauryl sulfate, which everyone [shies] away from." Either way, if you're looking to do some serious cleansing at a sweet price point, this may be the one for you. Just be sure to follow up with a good conditioner.

Twisted Sista Luxurious Clarifying Shampoo

Twisted Sista Luxurious Clarifying Shampoo is designed for textured hair, so it's got ingredients to keep it from over drying. "Some clarifying shampoos can leave your hair dull and strip its natural oils, but this formula is infused with ingredients like [moisturizing] avocado, almond, and coconut oils," says Redway, who suggests it for those with type 4 hair.

Camille Rose Clean Rinse Moisturizing and Clarifying Shampoo

The Camille Rose Clean Rinse Moisturizing and Clarifying Shampoo is another one of Redway's faves for type 4 hair. "This formula is infused with a ton of oils to leave your hair hydrated, shiny, and manageable," she says. Star ingredients include honey (to soften and smooth hair) and peppermint oil (to exfoliate dry scalp and promote healthy hair growth).

Oribe the Cleanse Clarifying Shampoo

"I like this shampoo because it uses volcanic ash and sea kelp extract to do the cleaning," says Weller of Oribe's The Cleanse Clarifying Shampoo. The product lives inside an aerosol can and turns into a mousse once it's dispensed. It offers a rich, creamy lather in the shower that will kick any buildup in the butt.

Ouidad Water Works Clarifying Shampoo

Sturdivant-Drew suggests Ouidad's Water Works Clarifying Shampoo if you’ve got curls. “It removes the buildup on the hair without stripping it. While cleansing, you will still retain moisture,” she says. In other words: This stuff will put the spring and bounce right back into your curls.

Seven Haircare Cubica Clarify Shampoo

"If you're not looking for an extreme clarifying experience, this is your winner," says Lawless of Seven Haircare's Cubica Clarify Shampoo. It'll give you that squeaky-clean feeling without being too harsh on your hair. The sulfate- free formula is scented with natural rosemary and eucalyptus.

Paul Mitchell Shampoo Two

Classics are classics for a reason. According to the brand story, Paul Mitchell's Shampoo Two is one of the three first products launched in its original line in 1980. Since then, folks have reached for this color-safe formula that has proven its power to deep clean hair. Sturdivant-Drew also notes that this baby will amp up the shine and volume of your hair.

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