When and How to Use Clarifying Shampoo

Woman washing her hair in natural light

Peter Cade / Getty Images 

No doubt you've noticed that, sometimes, your hair feels... weird. Maybe it's weighed down, extra-greasy, or defiant. Maybe you've noticed it's tough to comb through. If you're a swimmer, you might have suddenly seen a slight tinge of green. Chances are good that you need to use a clarifying shampoo.

Stuff builds up on your hair—all kinds of stuff: hairsprays, mousses, and gels; minerals in hard water; chlorine and chemicals from swimming pools. Even the waxes and moisturizers in some shampoos and conditioners can leave residue on your hair over time. This sludge can cause hair to appear dull, heavy, greasy, and limp. Depending on your hair's texture, it might even start to feel dry at the ends, almost crispy. Doubly so if you dye it. A clarifying shampoo gives your hair a fresh start by removing those deposits, restoring your hair's shine, softness, and manageability.

But don't just go for any clarifying shampoo. "I'd stay away from at home remedies," Melanie Smith, creative master colorist at Josh Wood Atelier, tells us. "I'd only recommend natural products that you could eat as an at-home remedy. I'd steer clear of chemical products not designed for your hair [like, say, detergent]. Lemon juice does lift the color, however." Read on for all you need to know about clarifying shampoos.

How often should you clarify?

The answer depends on how much your hair goes through on a daily basis. If you use a lot of hair products or have very hard water, you might find it helpful to clarify weekly or even twice per week. Swimmers who are in the pool every day may need to clarify even more often to banish the greenish tint that chlorine causes over time. But, if you use minimal hair products or have soft water, you might need to clarify only as little as every other month. The average person should use a clarifying shampoo once or twice a month. Smith recommends that you, "Do three to four shampoos, not just one, and always follow up with a really good treatment."

You might be wondering why you shouldn't simply use a clarifying shampoo on the daily. Sure, doing so would prevent buildup, but too-frequent use wouldn't leave enough beneficial oils in your hair to keep it healthy and shiny. Overuse can cause dryness. It can even exacerbate an oily-scalp problem, too, because the oil glands will respond to the desert-like conditions by producing an excess amount of sebum. You could find yourself caught in an endless cycle of using a clarifying shampoo to strip the excess oils that are produced in response to the dryness that the clarifying shampoo causes.

Can I still clarify if I color my hair?

Yes, a clarifying shampoo will benefit your hair as long as you don't overdo it. Using a clarifying shampoo on colored hair more than once a month or so can cause your hair color to fade faster than usual. Don't clarify your hair within the first week of a fresh color.

How do you clarify?

Using a clarifying shampoo is really no different than using any other shampoo, with a few things to note. Depending on the amount of buildup and oils on your hair, the shampoo may not lather very much, but that doesn't mean it's not working. Rinse very well. Apply again, and this time it should get sudsy. Let the shampoo sit on your head for a minute or two, while you take care of other grooming tasks, like shaving your legs. Letting the shampoo sit helps break down and release the product buildup, which is crucial. Then, rinse well again. If your hair has been sporting an unusual amount of buildup, you can repeat this step again, but only if dryness isn't a problem for you on the regular. Follow with a deep conditioner.

Which clarifiers are best?

Most professional and many over-the-counter lines offer clarifying shampoos. They all work very similarly. Your hair stylist might have a favorite brand, or might be able to recommend a clarifying shampoo that will work best for your hair type and situation. Still, we have a few favorites, too.

Oribe Shampoo for Beautiful Color
Oribe Shampoo for Beautiful Color $46

Oribe's shampoo is moisturizing and works to maintain hair's natural oils. Plus, it offers UV protection for strands and is safe to use on color-treated hair.

Klorane Shampoo With Centaury
Klorane Shampoo with Centaury $15

Klorane is a favorite of many. This shampoo contains centaury oil, which is an astringent and is great for adding silver highlights to hair to help reduce a brassy yellow.

Sachajuan Scalp Shampoo
Sachajuan Scalp Shampoo $28

This shampoo is beloved as a clarifier, but also beloved by people with seborrheic dermatitis (a form of eczema) for its clarifying properties. You know it works when it helps with a medical condition.

What if my hair is still misbehaving?

If you notice that the clarifying shampoo just isn't working—especially if you're a regular swimmer or have a lot of hard water buildup—consult your hair stylist, who probably has a stronger remedy to advise or apply. They have access to things you can't get over the counter.

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