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How do clarifying shampoos work?

Noumenon needs to know…How exactly do clarifying shampoos work? Some say that the extra-harsh Lauryl surfactants are what strips the hair of all the build-up, and they are safe to use once in a while for clarifying purposes. However, others say that it has nothing to do with the strength of the surfactant and even Sodium Laureth Sulfate can be used in a clarifying shampoo on it’s own. These people tend to claim that it’s something like lemon peel or an acidifier like citric acid that helps to strip the build-up. Could you please help to “clarify” the situation for us all? What exactly is the specific ingredient(s) that removes build-up beyond my gentle Sodium Laureth Sulfate based shampoo? Or is the whole clarifying thing a myth and you can really use any shampoo you want to remove build-up equally?

The Right Brain clears up clarifying:

There seems to be a popular misconception that clarifying shampoos work by using acid to remove hard water scale – kind of like “Lime-Away.” WiseGeek and About.com both claim that acetic acid should be a major component in a clarifying shampoo but the Beauty Brains have never seen a shampoo actually formulated that way.

Acid washed

I can see how this idea got started because it goes along with the notion that using vinegar to rinse your hair closes the cuticle and makes hair shinier. Unfortunately hair biology is not that simple. It’s true that very high pH chemical treatments (like relaxers) swell the hair shaft and lift the cuticle.When you relax your hair, you do need to neutralize the high pH so in that case acid treatment makes sense. But the same principle doesn’t really apply to hair that hasn’t been freshly relaxed or permed.

Real cause of build up

Hard water residue is not even the most common cause of build up. It’s more likely to be a result of not properly removing styling products. And if that’s the cause, then you certainly don’t want to use a product that contains more acid. That’s because the styling resins used in hairsprays, mousses, and gels become more water soluble when the pH is raised. So to help get rid of styling resin buildup you want to use a product that with a higher pH not lower which us what acid would do. Another possibility is that build up is caused by high molecular weight silicones and other water insoluble oils that deposit on your hair form conditioners or treatments. Neither acid or base will get rid of those bad boys.

The real clarifier

So what ingredients are really responsible for clarifying? Our old friends surfactants! A lot of people won’t want to hear this, but the lauryl sulfate type of surfactants are among the safest most powerful cleansers you can buy. As we explained in The Danger of Clarifying Shampoos, some people do complain of dry itchy scalp after using sulfate shampoos especially in dry climates. But most people have no problem, especially if they use them infequently.

A typical sulfate shampoo: Tresemme Deep Cleansing Shampoo

If sulfates just aren’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of other surfactants to choose from. Non-sulfate anionic cleansers include Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Sodium Lauryl. These tend to be less stripping so you may find they don’t clarify as well.

Nonsulfate anionic shampoo: Pureology Serious Colour Care Pure Volume Shampoo

Finally you can use an amphoteric shampoo, like a baby shampoo, which primarily contain milder amphoteric surfactants like PEG 80 Sorbitan Laurate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Lauroamphoglycinate. Those generally provide the least cleansing.

Amphoteric shampoo: Johnson’s Baby Shampoo

Clarifier can’t condition

In addition to choosing the correct type of cleansing ingredients it’s very important to choose a clarifying shampoo that doesn’t contain any conditioning agents. You want to make sure that you’re removing gunk from your hair, not depositing more stuff. So avoid any “”cones” like dimethicone, cyclomethicone, or amodimethicone and any conditioning polymers like guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride and Polyquaternium 7 and 10.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Clarifying shampoos work by washing away the gunk that’s built up on your hair. You don’t need any fancy product to do that – a simple, non-conditioning shampoo will do just fine for most people.

What do YOU think? Do you have a favorite deep cleaning shampoo? Leave a clarifying comment for the rest of the Beauty Brains community.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • amy March 11, 2014, 10:07 pm

    I just bought JJ baby shampoo: the Head To Toe for a body wash and the gold original for my hair. I find I don’t need much conditioner now, just a few spritzes of detangler. So if I’m using a milder shampoo and fewer conditioners after, wouldn’t that amount to less build up? I like the fragrance and texture. It lathers ok and my skin is very soft. Does anyone else like this shampoo?

    • Randy Schueller March 12, 2014, 8:38 am

      @Amy: You’ll probably see less build up but it depends on the strength of the conditioning agents in your detangled.

  • anjie April 27, 2014, 2:45 am

    I went through a very distressing period in the past few months, when my hair just wouldn’t feel clean & fresh afer a shampoo. It felt and looked oily & streaky & miserably ofcourse..I once shampooed it 5 times and rinsed it for longer than normal!!! But it still looked and felt the same! I used NO condition or serum or any other product..only shampoo & air dried it … but still no luck ! My hair dresser recommend clarifying shampoo..so darn expensive…so I decided to experiment with jj baby shampoo mixed with a few cap fulls of apple cider?? Voilà…it worked like a miracle…hair so clean, silky, glossy & not dry ..it was exhilarating. I finally had a solution..from my kitchen. The shampoo concoction didn’t lather much, but it sure cleaned my hair beautifully..no lingering apple cider smell either..hope this helps some of you out there struggling with a similar issue…

  • Anna May 14, 2014, 7:21 am

    I can’t imagine my life without my clarifying shampoo! I have bought it few years ago and since then I am using in regularly.

  • Rosi December 10, 2014, 5:27 pm

    Why is my hair softer, shinier and easier to detangle when i rinse it with vinager and water?

    • Randy Schueller December 10, 2014, 5:54 pm

      Hi Rosi. I need a little more information. When you rinse your hair with vinegar and water it’s softer, shinier, and easier to detangle compared to what? Not rinsing at all? Compared to using a regular conditioner?

  • Lily August 15, 2015, 7:40 pm

    I am looking for a clarifying shampoo because I am getting a lot of build up AFTER switching to Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. I like it for washing hair, but it most definitely fails to remove conditioner build up.

  • Sara September 20, 2015, 12:11 am

    Johnsons Baby Shampoo is not a clarifying shampoo. Try Neutrogena Anti Residue Shampoo or Lemongrass and Argan Stem Cell Shampoo

  • mac October 6, 2015, 12:19 pm

    Can i use claryfying shampoo everyday? Is it safe? I m using serioxyl claryfying shampoo and conditioner from loreal. I have oily scalp,

    • Randy Schueller October 6, 2015, 1:50 pm

      It should be fine unless the product instructions specifically tell you not to.

  • michelle November 17, 2015, 5:08 am

    Im black and i have locks, I’ve used baby shampoo for years, but i hardly condition my hair as i want the natural oils to do its job. Is that ok.

  • Scott June 8, 2016, 3:19 am

    Hey Randy

    I purchased a bottle of TRESemmé Deep Cleansing Shampoo.
    I got it on sale here in the U.K. so it only cost me $3.60/£2.48 for 31.6 fl. oz./900ml. Unbeatable value!


    Aqua (Water), Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Chloride, Ascorbic Acid, Biotin, Citric Acid, Disodium EDTA, Isopropyl Alcohol, Niacinamide, Panthenol, Parfum (Fragrance), Polyquaternium-10, Polysorbate 20, PPG-12, Sodium Acetate, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Hydroxide, Tocopheryl Acetate, Hexyl Cinnamal, Limonene, Linalool, CI 61570

    I notice this formula has Polyquaternium-10 as the 13th ingredient. Am I correct to assume that this shampoo will not build up because that particular conditioning agent is so low down on the list?


    • Randy Schueller June 8, 2016, 7:36 am

      Buildup from PQ10 should not be a problem here.

  • Mary Ware June 27, 2016, 6:51 am

    I use GKhair clarifying shampoo for my oily and greasy hair for the past 3 years and it did wonders on my hair. Perfect for removing styling products, residue, dirt, build up and other impurities. I use it once a week to squeeze out the maximum results. The best solution is to leave it in your hair for 1-3 minutes and then rinse it out. An ideal cleansing for dreadlocks. Simply fantastic stuff. 🙂 <3

  • Sandeep October 1, 2016, 8:33 pm

    Hi randy, i wanted to know if Tresemme Deep Cleanse shampoo is a good clarifying shampoo.. The company claims its gentle enough to use it daily.. Clarifying shampoos are very strong shampoos to remove build up on scalp and they are to be just once or twice a week.. I don’t how the tresseme shampoo is a clarifying shampoo since they claim it as “gentle enough to use daily”.

    • Randy Schueller October 2, 2016, 7:58 pm

      Clarifying shampoos are not always “very strong” sometimes they just contain fewer conditioning agents. That’s how they can be gentle to be used every day.

  • Riya June 22, 2017, 12:40 pm

    Hello… My question is that what is the difference between tresemme cleanses and replenish shampoo and tresemme purify and replenish shampoo?

    • Randy Schueller June 23, 2017, 8:40 am

      The Cleanse and Replenish is a 2 in 1 so it contains ingredients that will provide more conditioning to hair. The Purify and Replenish is a deep cleansing shampoo.