The 15 Best Clarifying Shampoos, According to Experts

Nobody has time for lank hair or an itchy, irritated scalp.

a model washing her hair with a clarifying shampoo
(Image credit: Getty/Moyo Studio)

If you know me, you know I'm a huge sucker for hair products, from leave-in conditioners to hair oils to curl-enhancing formulas. But in the midst of all these luxurious options and their propensity for hair growth, moisture, and other advantages, it's easy to forget about the bread and butter of haircare: Washing one's hair. And while we have a myriad of go-to shampoos and conditioners forever stocked in our bathrooms, sometimes we need something a little stronger to wash the buildup from products, sweat, and pollution from our strands. That's where clarifying shampoos come in.

"Clarifying shampoo is formulated to cleanse the hair and scalp of buildup and impurities," explains Gretchen Friese, a certified BosleyMD trichologist. Trichologists, by the way, are medical experts that specialize in hair and scalp health. Friese adds, that clarifying shampoos are "often used by people who are infrequent washers, swimmers, have problems with oily hair, or simply want to refresh their scalp."

Celebrity hairstylist Cynthia Alvarez agrees, noting that clarifying shampoo is especially helpful for those who use a lot of styling products. "Clarifying shampoos use a unique formula that works like a magnet to attract dirt, dissolve it, and flush it away with water," she says. "[Clarifying shampoo] is specifically formulated to clear buildup and remove any residue from styling products. It prevents bacterial buildup on the scalp, creates volume, thoroughly removes buildup, restores your hair’s PH, and prepares your hair for coloring services."

How Often to Use a Clarifying Shampoo

According to Dr. Friese, "Anyone with dry/damaged hair should use a clarifying shampoo before deep conditioning hair to remove buildup. It will help the conditioner penetrate better." She also says that if you merely notice buildup on your hair or scalp in general, it's a good time to break out the clarifying shampoo.

Alvarez agrees, adding that clarifying shampoo can also help revive dull highlights. She also says it's the right move "when you’ve been using a lot of dry shampoo, when your hair still has residue after washing your hair, [and] if you swim often."

And what does swimming have to do with your hair? Dr. Friese explains, "People who swim often may need to clarify their hair more often to prevent the greenish tinge hair can take on from the chlorine. The same goes for ocean swimmers. A clarifying shampoo can help remove salt buildup on the hair."

For swimmers specifically, as well as those with oily scalps or who don't wash their hair often, Alzarez recommends using a clarifying shampoo regularly, though all people should limit their use of it to "at most, once a week." Dr. Friese agrees, advising that people who merely have oily hair use it "about every third wash to help remove oily buildup on the scalp." For those who have naturally dry hair, meanwhile, Alvarez suggests only using it as needed.

What to Look For in Clarifying Shampoo

So, now you know what clarifying shampoo is and how often you should use it, you're wondering what the best clarifying shampoo is for you. The search can be overwhelming, and it's hard to understand what to look for if you're not a stylist or trichologist, which is why we've done the research for you.

Dr. Friese starts by breaking down three common ingredients in clarifying shampoos and what makes them advantageous, depending on what you need from your product. The first compound she names is ammonium-sodium lauryl sulfate, which "provides the deepest cleanse. These may be best for extreme hair care product buildup or very oily hair. However, if you have any kind of keratin treatment in your hair—" including at-home keratin treatments like creams or leave-ins—"you should stay away from this ingredient as it will strip the treatment from the hair."

For those in need of milder ingredients, she recommends looking out for cetyl-fatty alcohols as well as chlorides and bromides. The latter "can help make your hair soft," but she warns that "people with really fine hair may want to stay away from these ingredients."

Alvarez adds, "You should look for moisturizing ingredients like aloe, seaweed and wheat proteins. You also want to look for a shampoo that has physical exfoliation properties."

In terms of ingredients you should stay away from, Alvarez warns that, for best results, "You should avoid parabens, silicons, sulfates, microplastic, and any animal origin ingredients."

The Best Clarifying Shampoos

Meet the Experts

Gretchen Friese
Dr. Gretchen Friese

Gretchen Friese is a certified trichologist and trichology consultant. After working in the hair industry in Los Angeles for over 20 years, she relocated to Denver, where she now works with Foushee SalonSpa and Element 5.

Cynthia Alvarez, hairstylist
Cynthia Alvarez

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Cynthia Alvarez is a celebrity hairstylist who has worked with clients of all hair types, including Shakira, Alicia Keys, Dascha Polanco, and more.