Lather, rinse, repeat. Washing your hair seems pretty simple, but for those who are buildup-prone, using the best clarifying shampoo is key to getting the deep cleanse they need. Sure, there are plenty of options on the market, but these intensive (yet gentle!) formulations literally get to the root of scalp concerns while providing the freshly cleansed feel that flaky scalps and oily hair types want. But what really makes them better at removing buildup than any regular shampoo? For answers, we chatted with experts in the know for insight as to what “clarifying” really means, and why these cleansing shampoos are better than the rest.
First off, clarifying shampoos are deep cleansers that aim to remove the buildup of product residue, dead skin flakes, and oil. New York City-based 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 like dry shampoo? 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.
Similar to dandruff shampoos, clarifying options have a bad rep for stripping hair, because, well, they’re meant to be intensive. 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 shampoos or even skip surfactants altogether by going sulfate-free with their formulas.