Despite having a pretty solid beauty routine that involves washing my hair several times a week, every once in a while I’ll come to the realization that my strands are missing something. But what caused these suddenly limp locks? Was it the triple layer of hairspray I used to secure my hair into a sleek, low bun? An extended YouTube yoga video session that caused some serious scalp sweat? Or just that a few too many consecutive days of dry shampoo have finally caught up to me? Whatever the cause of that recognizable “gunky” hair feeling, there comes a time in every person’s shampoo schedule when you’ll need to turn to a clarifying shampoo for some extra assistance.
Regardless of what additional benefits your everyday shampoo promises, like hydration or curl protection, its underlying job is the same: to clean your hair. So what sets clarifying shampoo apart into its own hair care category? As a beauty lover, I like to compare it to the world of skincare: I wash my face regularly, but every few weeks I also treat myself to a facial. And that’s exactly the kind of benefits you’re offering your hair and scalp — when you’re looking for a deeper, more purifying kind of clean (that can feel like a luxurious beauty treatment), you use a clarifying shampoo. Specific formulas obviously vary, but in general, clarifying shampoos work to help dissolve product build-up, oil, and dead skin cells, giving you the deepest exfoliation and much-needed detox for your hair and scalp. Using clarifying shampoo regularly can even stimulate your hair growth.
Clarifying shampoos are like deep cleansing or detox treatments for your hair. Clarifying formulas use ingredients like salicylic acid or apple cider vinegar to strip away sebum, excess build up, and impurities that regular shampoos may not effectively remove. If your hair feels weighed down, looks dull, or you're battling persistent issues like greasiness or itchy, sensitive scalp, it might be time for a clarifying shampoo. Athletes, swimmers, and individuals exposed to hard water or heavy pollution should also consider adding it to their routine to avoid breakage and damaged hair. If you have curly hair, frizz or are susceptible to dandruff, you should definitely be using a clarifying shampoo to remove buildup from your follicles. Below are some additional reasons to use it.
Most of the time people turn to clarifying shampoo as a kind of reset for excessive product build-up. Some shampoos don’t have the cleansing power necessary to remove all of the product you may use, leaving you with layers of build-up that translate to greasy strands. So while that shine wax or extra-strong hairspray may have taken your style to the next level, you might want to turn to clarifying shampoo when it's time to put that look to bed.
If your regular shampoo is still leaving your hair looking a little on the greasier side, a shampoo for oily hair can help remove excess dirt and oil. Since clarifying shampoo offers a much deeper clean, try seeing if using oily hair products gives you the grease-free shine you’ve been missing. And be sure to check out another key post from our blog: “How to Get Rid of Oily Hair: A Guide to Live By.”
As someone who lives in New York City, I’m no stranger to the effects of smog, construction debris, and general air pollution. Mixing a clarifying shampoo into my weekly routine helps to ensure none of that junk is following me for too long once I get off the subway.
If you’re not sure what the source of your “limp and lifeless” hair is, try a clarifying shampoo. Sometimes a lack of volume is caused by either excessive product build-up or a very oily scalp, so getting a deep clean from a clarifying shampoo just might be the voluminous savior you’ve been looking for. Once dry, follow with a texturizing spray for fine hair to really take that volume to the next level.
While you shouldn’t use a clarifying shampoo within the first week of coloring your hair, an occasional deep-cleaning session (with the right sulfate and paraben-free clarifying shampoo) will help bring out the most vibrant hues possible. For more information on caring for freshly dyed hair, be sure to check out our post on “How to Prevent Your Hair Dye From Fading.”
While hair types and lifestyles vary, the average person should try to clarify their hair once or twice a month. Start here and adjust as necessary; if you’re not satisfied with the level of cleaning, use it more frequently, or space it out more if your locks look a little too over-cleansed. The over-use of clarifying shampoo can potentially be detrimental to your locks; since the natural oils on your scalp are responsible for keeping everything in balance (meaning healthy, shiny hair), removing too much of them will leave you with dull, lifeless strands. As is the case with most things in life, the key here is finding balance!
Once you’ve figured out the right wash schedule, I’m all in favor of turning a clarifying shampoo into a mini spa experience… and this means treating yourself to a scalp massage while applying your shampoo. After massaging it into your scalp, let the shampoo sit for a few minutes — this has the benefit of allowing the shampoo to properly break down any build-up or oil that may be on your scalp — then rinse it out. Since the intense cleaning of clarifying shampoos might make your hair feel a little drier than usual, follow this with a nice and nourishing deep conditioner.
Clarifying shampoos are designed to strip away impurities, but in doing so, they can also strip away the color molecules from your hair. This is because these shampoos contain strong ingredients that effectively remove everything from your strands, including the pigment molecules that give your hair its beautiful color. When you use a clarifying shampoo on color-treated hair, you risk dulling the vibrancy and longevity of your dye job. It's best to avoid these harsh shampoos and opt for sulfate-free, color-safe alternatives that are free of silicones and gentler on your hair. Likewise, if you have a sensitive scalp you may want to avoid clarifying formulas to maintain your hair's brilliance and keep your scalp feeling healthy.
Clarifying shampoos are designed to deep-clean your hair and scalp, removing residues of styling products, excess oil, and environmental pollutants. But it’s essential to understand that clarifying shampoos are not meant for daily use. Using them too frequently can strip your hair of its natural oils, leading to dry scalp and potential damage. Limit their use to once a week or every two weeks, depending on your hair type and the level of buildup. Gently lather and massage the shampoo in, allowing it to sit for a minute or two (like a mini hair mask treatment!) before rinsing thoroughly.
So by now, you’re probably wondering which is the best clarifying shampoo for you to use. I’d recommend looking into the different types available: some double as flaky scalp care, and some focus on using active ingredients like charcoal, but not every kind can promise to work with your specific needs (or even be good for you, since intense formulas can actually end up over-stripping your strands if you already have dry hair).
When my scalp needs a good reset, I turn to the SOLU family for backup, with its different levels of cleaning. First, there’s the classic SOLU clarifying shampoo. While this rich foaming shampoo is designed to remove build-up, you’re still left with hair that’s refreshed, soft, and shiny. This efficient level of cleaning was best described by Eva Alt at Into the Gloss: “I can fully attest that there was not a single strand of hair on my head that felt crunchy or crusty after using.” But if you’re really looking to scrub that scalp, there’s the SOLU Sea Salt Scrub Cleanser. This gentle scrub removes residue while also adding a texturizing effect to your hair, leaving you with beautifully voluminous strands. And while actual vacations may be out of the question for the foreseeable future, you can mentally transport yourself to the Sicilian coast with a rich scalp massage.
Even the best shampoo and conditioner routines need a little variety, especially if you’ve been noticing excessive build-up of product or oil in your hair. Finding the right clarifying shampoo helps you ensure that your hair is as clean and voluminous as it can be: try to mix a clarifying shampoo into your shower schedule once or twice a month, and enjoy healthier, happier-looking hair. And if you have any additional tips and tricks for keeping your scalp healthy, be sure to let us know in the comments! Still have questions about your hair? See a hair stylist in your area for an assessment and custom treatment plan.
by Jaclyn LaBadia, featured contributor