How to Use Clarifying Shampoo

Woman shampooing her hair in the shower
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No doubt you've noticed that, sometimes, your hair feels inexplicably weird: weighed down, extra- greasy, or defiant. Maybe you've noticed it's tough to comb through. If you're a swimmer, you might detect 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 feel dry at the ends, almost crispy. A clarifying shampoo can give your hair a fresh start by removing those deposits, restoring your hair's shine, softness, and manageability.

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.

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. Oddly enough, it can exacerbate an oily-scalp problem, too, because the oil glands will react to the desert-like conditions by raining 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.

How Do You Clarify?

Using a clarifying shampoo is really no different than using any other shampoo, with just a few tweaks. Start with a nickel- to quarter-sized amount of clarifying shampoo and work it into your scalp, massaging lightly for a good 60 seconds. 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.

Next, work a smaller dab of shampoo through your hair. (The more hair you have, the more you'll need to use, but typically no more than a quarter-sized amount is sufficient.) You should notice lots of suds. Let the shampoo sit in its bubbly glory 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 so this is an important step. Then, rinse very well. 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.

Condition your hair as you normally do. While that may seem to run counter to the objective of reducing buildup, it's a very important step; think of it as restoring the proper moisture balance. You might even need to use a bit more conditioner than usual, because clarifying shampoos don't usually include the moisturizers that regular shampoos do.

Which Clarifiers Are Best?

Most professional and many over-the-counter produce 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.

One recommendation is Redken Cleansing Cream Shampoo, which removes product buildup while being gentle enough to use every day. Another is Kenra Clarifying Shampoo, which is geared to protect color-treated hair.

It's also highly rated among swimmers and people who have hard water.

Some people swear by homebrewed rinses. A dousing of diluted vinegar over your hair can reduce buildup. (Rinse well, and don't worry about smelling like a salad: The smell dissipates as your hair dries.) Likewise, a couple tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in water makes an amazingly effective buildup-dissolver. Again, rinse very well. This is effective because it restores the proper pH (the acid/alkaline balance) in your hair, releasing all the crud that's been sitting on your hair strands.

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.

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.