When and How to Use Clarifying Shampoo


@tylauren / Design by Camden Dechert

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. The chances are good that you need to use a clarifying shampoo.

We reached out to expert colorist Melanie Smith and dermatologist Dr. Iris Rubin to get some answers on how clarifying shampoo can help even the sludgiest of strands. Scroll on to learn all you need to know about clarifying shampoos.

Meet the Expert

  • Iris Rubin, MD, is a dermatologist and the founder and chief medical officer of SEEN Haircare. She graduated from Harvard Medical School and specializes in the relationship between hair health and skin health.
  • Melanie Smith is a Creative Master colorist at the Josh Wood salon in London. She has supported fashion shows for Valentino and Burberry and has over 25 years of experience in the field.
  • Sophia Emmanuel is an IAT-Certified Trichologist and licensed cosmetologist based in New York. 

What is clarifying shampoo?

Simply put, a clarifying shampoo is designed to remove build-up on your hair. Stuff—all kinds of it—builds up on your hair: 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. Your mane might even start to feel crispy at the ends—a symptom regular hair coloring will exacerbate. A clarifying shampoo promises to give your hair a fresh start by removing those deposits, restoring your hair's shine, softness, and manageability. "In a way, it's like a hair detox," says Rubin.

The Benefits of Clarifying Shampoo

  • Removes product build-up on the hair and scalp: "A flaky scalp can sometimes be a sign of product build-up," says Rubin.
  • Helps reset hair back to square one: Once all the gunk is out, your hair will be much closer to its natural feel and appearance.
  • Eliminates tint from chlorine exposure: We are all for a punk-rock-green moment, but not by accident; clarifying shampoo will remove that colorful tinge that regular pool-goers sometimes get.

The Drawbacks

  • Might cause hair dye to fade: Because the idea of a clarifying shampoo is to strip away any deposit on the hair, using one too frequently will make your color wash out faster. Step away from the clarifying shampoo for at least a week after fresh color is applied.
  • Might exacerbate skin conditions: Anyone who has dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, or eczema should use caution when trying clarifiers.

How to Use Clarifying Shampoo

woman combing hair

Sydney Shaffer / Getty Images

Using a clarifying shampoo is really no different than using any other shampoo, with a few things to note. It won't be the in-and-out-in-five process of a typical shower. "Do three to four shampoos, not just one, and always follow up with a really good treatment," suggests Smith.

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 acting out particularly badly as of late, you can repeat this step, but only if dryness isn't a problem for you on the regular. Follow with a deep conditioner, even if your hair isn't normally dry, to restore moisture, recommends Rubin.

Smith also notes that when it comes to clarifying, a DIY-approach might not be your best bet. "I'd stay away from at-home remedies," she says. "I'd also steer clear of chemical products not designed for your hair, like detergent."

Hair Type Considerations

Anyone can use and benefit from a clarifying shampoo, but be cautious if your hair is freshly colored or you're trying to stretch between touch-up appointments. Additionally, people with hair that is prone to dryness (like naturally curly or textured hair) need to limit their use of clarifiers to only when necessary. "For naturally curly or textured hair, use a sulfate-free clarifying shampoo which will clarify the hair without stripping it," Emmanuel says. "Malibu C Scalp Wellness ($36) is an option."

How Often to Use Clarifying Shampoos

The answer depends on how much your hair goes through on a daily basis. If you use many hair products or have very hard water, you might find it helpful to clarify weekly. Swimmers 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. Once a week to once per month is a good general guideline, says Rubin.

The Best Clarifying Shampoos

Moroccan Oil Clarifying Shampoo
Morrocan Oil Clarifying Shampoo $26.00

This offering from the iconic treatment brand is labeled as color-safe, plus we wouldn't be surprised if it offered some of the trademark hydration of its namesake.

Seen Shampoo
SEEN Skin-Caring Shampoo Fragrance Free $29.00

SEEN's shampoo is formulated without the kind of stuff that makes your hair gunky in the first place—silicones, phthalates, parabens, and comedogenic oils. "A double wash with SEEN shampoo can get your hair and scalp squeaky clean with less risk of stripping your natural oils," says Rubin.

Klorane Detox Shampoo
Klorane Detox Shampoo with Acquatic Mint $10.00

Klorane targets an insidious contributor to hair build-up with their detox shampoo—the very air around us. Aquatic mint, lemon, and tea are meant to remove pollution particles from hair and probably provide a very zesty pick-me-up smell in the morning shower.

Sachajuan Scalp Shampoo
Sachajuan Scalp Shampoo $29.00

This shampoo is beloved by people with seborrheic dermatitis (a form of eczema) for its clarifying properties, making it a good choice for anyone with a sensitive scalp who still wants squeaky clean strands.

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