Hair Health

What is clarifying shampoo? [+ how & when to use it]

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Whether you’re fighting the effects of hard water damage or looking to add a little shine and clarity to dull hair, a clarifying shampoo could be the key to revitalizing tired-looking hair. But what is clarifying shampoo, and how do you use it effectively?

In this article, our team of experts answers those and other questions, as well as offers tips on how to incorporate a clarifying shampoo into your haircare routine.

What is clarifying shampoo?

Clarifying shampoo is a type of shampoo specifically formulated to remove product buildup, excess oils, and other residue from hair, restoring its natural shine and texture. Most clarifying shampoos achieve these results by using chelating agents and a surfactant blend.

Chelating agents are chemical compounds that bind to mineral deposits, metals, and other impurities that have built up on the hair shaft, forming stable, water-soluble complexes that effectively isolate those impurities. Once a chelating agent has bonded to an impurity, that impurity can be easily rinsed away, leaving hair clean and free from buildup.

Surfactants — short for “surface active agents” — are ambiphilic molecules with a hydrophilic (water-attracting) head group and a hydrophobic (water-repelling) tail. This unique molecular structure enables surfactants to reduce the surface tension of liquids, making them more effective at dispersing, emulsifying, and foaming. Surfactants are a common ingredient in not only haircare products but also soaps and detergents, prized for their cleansing abilities.

Clarifying shampoos typically use a blend of surfactants, such as:

  • Sodium laureth sulfate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • TEA lauryl sulfate
  • Ammonium laureth sulfate
  • Ammonium lauryl sulfate
  • DEA lauryl sulfate
  • Sodium olefin sulfonate

Thanks to the combination of chelating agents and surfactants, clarifying shampoos have stronger cleansing abilities than other shampoos, which makes them uniquely suited for removing buildup and residue from hair.

What is clarifying shampoo used for?

Clarifying shampoo has a wide range of potential uses, including:

  • Removing excess oil and dirt: The sebaceous glands in your scalp produce sebum, a blend of lipids (natural oils) that acts as a protective barrier and plays an essential role in your hair’s overall health. Too much sebum, though, can cause your scalp and hair to appear oily. Since clarifying shampoo is specifically formulated to provide a deeper, more thorough cleanse than other types of shampoos, it’s especially effective at removing excess sebum, which helps maintain a healthy scalp. Clarifying shampoo can also remove dirt, soot, pollen, and other environmental pollutants from hair, leaving it clean and soft.
  • Removing product buildup: From leave-in treatments and styling products to hairspray and serums, chances are your haircare routine involves quite a few steps — and quite a few products. Without sufficient cleansing, residue from these products can build up over time, creating a film on the hair shaft, clogging follicles, and making hair appear dull and even greasy. Clarifying shampoo is designed to break down and remove this buildup, restoring the natural shine and vitality of your hair.
  • Removing hard water buildup: The vast majority of homes throughout the United States have hard water. Hard water is water that contains a high concentration of dissolved minerals, primarily calcium and magnesium. Over time, mineral deposits from hard water can form on your shower head, shower tiles, and even your hair, decreasing its baseline strength and making it more prone to breakage. Using clarifying shampoo on a regular basis is an effective way to counteract the effects of hard water on your hair, preventing it from becoming brittle, stiff, or greasy.
  • Eliminating tint from chlorine exposure: Swimmers know firsthand that routine exposure to chlorine, which has strong oxidizing properties, can strip natural oils from hair and cause it to become dry and brittle. For those with light-colored hair, chlorine can even lead to discoloration as it causes copper within pool water to oxidize. This oxidized copper then bonds to proteins in the hair shaft, giving it a greenish tint. By using a clarifying shampoo in conjunction with a leave-in conditioning treatment, you can thoroughly moisturize dry, chlorine-damaged hair and protect against discoloration. 
  • Adding volume to hair: Excess oil, product buildup, and hard water residue can all weigh down your hair, making it appear flat and limp. By cleansing hair of buildup, clarifying shampoo can restore your hair’s natural texture and volume.

Clarifying shampoo [before + after]

6 signs that you might benefit from a clarifying shampoo

You may still be wondering, “How do I know if I need a clarifying shampoo?” Here are some telltale signs to look for:

  • You frequently use leave-in hair products, such as hair serums, styling gels or creams, leave-in conditioner, hair oils, mousse, or curl enhancers
  • You regularly heat style your hair and use heat protectant serums or sprays to protect against damage and hairspray to set your style
  • Your hair looks and feels oily or greasy, even after washing
  • Your hair feels heavy or sticky
  • Your hair looks dull, limp, or lifeless
  • You hair has difficulty holding different styles

How to use clarifying shampoo: 3 easy steps

You may be surprised to learn that using a clarifying shampoo isn’t all that different from using a regular shampoo, which makes it incredibly easy to incorporate into your haircare routine.

Here’s how to use clarifying shampoo in three simple steps:

  1. Begin by wetting your hair thoroughly and squeezing a small amount of clarifying shampoo into the palm of your hand. Rub your hands together to create a rich lather before working the shampoo into your scalp and strands with your fingertips, gently massaging product in and focusing on areas where you typically have buildup.
  2. If your hair has hard water buildup, allow the clarifying shampoo to sit on the affected area for a few minutes. This gives the shampoo time to break down and dissolve any heavy metals or minerals that may have accumulated on the hair shaft, allowing for a deeper cleanse.
  3. When you’re ready, thoroughly rinse your hair with lukewarm water. Take your time and ensure that you’ve removed all traces of the clarifying shampoo or buildup — you should rinse until the water runs clear and there are no lingering suds or product left in your hair.

For best results, you’ll want to choose a clarifying shampoo that deeply cleanses without stripping hair and, once a week, follow up with a leave-in conditioner or hair mask to lock in essential moisture.

It’s also important not to apply clarifying shampoo too often, especially if you have color-treated hair, as this can lead to fading, or if your hair is prone to dryness, as this can lead to breakage. The general rule of thumb is to use clarifying shampoo no more than once a week, though this guidance may vary depending on your hair type and texture.

Find the clarifying shampoo that’s right for you

Clarifying shampoo is a simple, yet effective addition to your haircare routine, keeping excess oil, product residue, and hard water buildup at bay and giving you clean, healthy hair. But not all clarifying shampoos are made alike. Some are formulated with harsh ingredients that can strip your hair of its natural oils over time, leaving it dry, brittle, and prone to breakage.

Not Living Proof. Our Clarifying Detox Shampoo is specifically engineered to offer a deep cleanse without stripping hair — here’s how:

  • Magnetic polymers act like a magnet, attaching to product buildup and removing it from hair
  • Activated charcoal detoxifies hair by absorbing odors and impurities
  • Naturally derived chelating agents remove minerals and heavy metal buildup caused by hard water
  • A gentle surfactant blend sweeps away pollution particles

As with all of our products, our Clarifying Detox Shampoo is formulated without phthalates, silicones, sulfates, and other harsh ingredients. It’s also rigorously tested and scientifically proven to be effective.

The final result? Hair that looks and feels softer, shinier, and more manageable, paving the way for your best clean hair routine.

Frequently asked questions

Can I use clarifying shampoo every day?

It isn’t advisable to use clarifying shampoo — even one as gentle-yet-effective as our Clarifying Detox Shampoo — on a daily basis, as this can strip hair of its natural oils over time, causing it to dry out. You should, ideally, only use clarifying shampoo once a week, though this guidance may vary depending on your hair type and texture.

Can I use clarifying shampoo on color-treated hair?

Yes. Clarifying shampoo is safe to apply to color-treated hair — it’s just a matter of how often you use it. Using clarifying treatments too often can cause hair dye to prematurely fade, so it’s best to apply just once a week. For added protection, pair a clarifying shampoo with a color treatment.

How do I use clarifying shampoo?

Using a clarifying shampoo is easy — in fact, it’s essentially the same as using any other type of shampoo. Simply apply product to your scalp and massage it in with your fingers, letting it run down the length of your hair. Depending on your degree of hard water buildup, you may want to let the product sit for a few minutes to let it break down residue. Then rinse well and follow up with a moisturizing mask or deep conditioner to restore moisture to your hair.

Is clarifying shampoo good for oily hair?

Yes. Clarifying shampoo’s powerful ingredients and deep cleansing abilities make it uniquely suited to break down excess oils, product buildup, or hard water residue, all of which can make hair look dull, oily, or greasy.

Does clarifying shampoo help with dandruff?

Although clarifying shampoo isn’t formulated to address chronic dandruff, it can effectively cleanse the scalp and remove oil, buildup, and dead skin cells, all of which can irritate the scalp and lead to dandruff. 

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Living Proof Review Team

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