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? Can’t we just use dry shampoo instead? What makes it different? For answers, we chatted with experts in the know for insight as to what “clarifying” really means, and why the best clarifying shampoos are better than the rest.
First off, clarifying shampoos are deep cleansers that aim to remove product 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. “It’s a personal decision, but in general, I recommend once every two weeks for those who use styling products, [as well as] heat and who don’t wash every day,” says Lawless.
Now that you’ve got the lowdown on clarifying shampoos, check out the best clarifying shampoos that hairstylists actually trust and recommend.