The job of any shampoo is to cleanse your scalp and strands—so what makes a clarifying shampoo different? It all comes down to the formulation. Clarifying shampoos use stronger surfactants (aka cleansing agents) than normal ones, making them extra robust for removing oil, build-up, and other debris. But because clarifying shampoos are more intense, they shouldn't be used all the time.
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"A clarifying shampoo goes beyond the surface, delivering a deep cleanse to eradicate product build-up, residue, and hard water minerals," says hairstylist Sharley Butcher. "Picture it as a revitalizing reset button for your hair."
Meet Our Expert
Marisa Garshick, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and New Jersey.
Elizabeth F. Callahan, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Sarasota County, Florida.
If you plan to incorporate a clarifying shampoo into your routine, it's essential to know how often to use it, which comes down to a few factors. Experts explain everything you need to know about clarifying shampoos below.
Who Will Benefit Most From a Clarifying Shampoo
Anyone with an oily scalp
"A clarifying shampoo may contain ingredients designed to lift away excess oil and residue, making them especially good for those with oily scalp," says Dr. Garshick.
Anyone with limp, dull strands
If you feel like your curls are lifeless or your hair still feels weighed down after a wash, you may be dealing with a ton of product buildup. "Some of the signs that indicate you might need to use a clarifying shampoo are if you have dull, limp hair, heavy, greasy hair, a waxy or sticky feel to your hair, styling product build-up, or an itchy or flaky scalp," says Dr. Callahan.
Anyone experiencing mineral or chlorine build-up
"Furthermore, if you live in an area with hard water, mineral deposits can accumulate on your hair, making it feel sticky and weighed down. [Or] if you swim regularly in chlorinated pools," says Dr. Callahan. "Over time, these residues can accumulate on the hair, making it appear dull, greasy, and weighed down. Clarifying shampoos are designed to strip away these build-ups, leaving the hair clean, refreshed, and ready to absorb moisture and nutrients more effectively."
Anyone who doesn't shampoo frequently
If you're able to stretch time between shampoos to a week or more, it's helpful to use a clarifying shampoo. "Clarifying shampoos can be helpful for someone who doesn’t wash their hair frequently as it offers a deeper cleanse than a traditional shampoo," says Dr. Garshick.
Anyone who feels like their hair just isn't getting clean enough
"Listen to your hair; it might tell you it's time for a clarifying session," says Butcher. "If your hair doesn't truly feel clean, it's craving that deep cleanse."
Downsides of Clarifying Shampoo
The most common downside of clarifying shampoo is that it can dry out the hair when used too often. "Clarifying shampoos, while effective at cleansing, can be drying to the hair if used excessively or if the hair is naturally dry or damaged," says Dr. Callahan. "Because they have strong cleansing agents, they can strip away not only the excess oils and product residues but also some of the natural oils that keep the hair moisturized, leading to dryness, especially if the shampoo is used too frequently."
Dr. Callahan adds that the deep cleanse also opens the cuticles of the hair, which "can make the hair more porous, allowing moisture to escape easily, and leading to dryness and frizz." Additionally, this can lead to premature fading of hair color. "Those with color-treated hair should be cautious when using a clarifying shampoo," says Dr. Garshick.
How Often to Use Clarifying Shampoo
"Even those with very oily scalps should limit use to one to two times per week while those with more dry or sensitive scalps should limit use to one to two times per month, if at all," says Dr. Garshick. "That said, there are different clarifying shampoos designed for different hair and scalp types so it is best to find one specifically suited to your needs."
Dr. Garshick is a huge fan of the Olaplex No4 C Bond Maintenance Clarifying Shampoo ($30). "A great option for all hair types, this clarifying shampoo is safe for color-treated hair and can be used weekly to help remove excess oil and buildup," she says. Dr. Callahan recommends the Neutrogena Healthy Scalp Clarify & Shine Anti-Residue Shampoo ($10) and the Ouidad Water Works Clarifying Shampoo ($24), while Butcher recommends the Curlsmith Wash and Scrub Detox Shampoo ($28). "It achieves that coveted deep cleanse without leaving your hair feeling straw-like," says Butcher.
What to Do After Using a Clarifying Shampoo
"After using a clarifying shampoo, following up with the right steps is important to ensure your hair remains healthy, moisturized, and well-nourished," says Dr. Callahan. "You should start by conditioning your hair with a moisturizing conditioner and apply a leave-in conditioner to provide extra hydration and protection. Make sure to avoid or limit the use of heat styling tools to prevent further dryness, as well as heavy styling products that can weigh down your hair, making it look greasy faster. If possible, allow your hair to air dry naturally or use cool settings with a hairdryer."
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