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We've Tested The Best Clarifying Shampoos To Keep Your Scalp Squeaky Clean

Hannah Frye
Author:
December 15, 2023
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
By Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor

Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.

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Image by Artem Podrez x mbg creative / Stocksy
December 15, 2023
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In the moment, products like hairspray and dry shampoo can be a lifesaver…but over time, these products begin to build up on your strands. The result? Dull and dry hair that is half as shiny and healthy as it could be. 

You'll want a clarifying shampoo to get the best of both worlds and reap the momentary reward of styling products without hurting your hair health. 

After testing a lengthy list of clarifying shampoos, I’m here to present a curated selection of products sure to keep your strands fresh and healthy. Below, you’ll find the six best clarifying shampoos along with a guide to choosing the perfect option for your hair’s current state.

A quick look at the best clarifying shampoos

What is a clarifying shampoo?

"A clarifying shampoo is a deep cleanser for the hair and scalp. It is formulated to remove excess buildup from products, impurities, and any residues in the hair and scalp," stylist, colorist, and co-owner at Broome Street Society in New York City Josie Sanchez told mbg.

Clarifying shampoos are amped-up versions of the day-to-day ones that thoroughly clean both the hair follicles, scalp, and hair fiber.

That being said, scalp concerns like dryness and dandruff often require supplemental products like hydrating serums or designated dandruff shampoos. So, view these products as a routine clean-up, not a cure-all for scalp buildup.

Even if you don’t use tons of products, simply washing your hair with hard water (read: no shower filter) can cause chemicals like chlorine to build up on your strands, preventing your hair from looking shiny and fresh. 

So yes, clarifying shampoos are right for most people when used properly and when the right product is selected (we’re here to help with that).

Testing rubric

The mindbodygreen beauty team rigorously tested the clarifying shampoos on this list, and judged them on the following criteria.

  1. Hydration: While clarifying shampoos aren’t meant to hydrate your hair (that’s conditioner’s job) they shouldn’t leave your strands totally dehydrated. We rank the drying effect of each product so you know what you’re getting into, especially for those with already dry or brittle stands.
  2. Lather: Some people prefer a super full lather with their shampoo, while others can go without. We’ll share our experience with each product’s lathering capabilities below so you know when a product will fit your preferences.
  3. Fragrance: If a fragrance is too strong or smells odd, we’ll let you know. Fragrance isn’t essential to hair health, but we know it’s an important factor for many people.
  4. Efficacy: Most importantly, we’ll tell you how well these products work. By that, we mean how well they cut through product buildup and refreshed our strands.
  5. Color-safe: Clarifying shampoos can be stripping, so we’ll let you know if each product is safe for hair dye or if you should skip it to preserve your hues.
Best overall

Ouai Detox Shampoo

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Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Key ingredients
Apple cider vinegar, Hydrolyzed keratin
Hair type capability
All hair types

This product is a cult-favorite and I totally understand why. It really works, but it doesn’t leave your hair wrecked like some of the other products out there. It actually leaves my hair feeling softer, which is impressive for a super-strong shampoo.

Hydration: 4

This one is strong but never dries out my hair. I wouldn’t say it’s the least-drying option on the list but it’s definitely gentler than many other popular products out there. If you have dry hair already, I’d use a hair mask after using this shampoo just to be cautious.

Lather: 5

This one lathers up nicely, especially if you pop your head under the water once it’s applied for some extra moisture. 

Fragrance: 4

The formula does have a fragrance, but it’s very neutral. Unless you have a sensitivity to fragrance, I doubt it will be a problem.

Efficacy: 5

This one makes the best overall for a reason—it does work! I’ve gone through multiple bottles and never been disappointed. This cuts through loads of gel, styling paste, and oil in one single cleanse.

Color-safe: 5

This product is color-safe but does contain sulfates. In essence, this means you should skip it if your color is temporary (like a gloss, for example) but it will not likely strip permanent color.

Pros & cons

Pros

  • Cuts through stubborn oil & product buildup
  • Floral scent masks hints of vinegar

Cons

  • Not the best for severely damaged hair
Best color-safe

Olaplex No.4C Bond Maintenance Clarifying Shampoo

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Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Key ingredients
Panthenol, Bis-Aminopropyl, Diglycol Dimaleate, Panthenol, Hyaluronic acid
Hair type capability
All hair types

Our beauty director Alexandra Engler is an Olaplex fan, especially for damaged hair. “I used to highlight my hair pretty heavily (read: lots of blonde highlights all over). During this time, Olaplex was my best friend,” she says, referring to the bond-building technology that kept her strands from breaking even when exposed to bleach. This clarifying shampoo is no exception–in fact, it’s an ideal pick for those with damaged hair who still need a detox.

Hydration: 4

“As far as formulas go, this is non-stripping,” Engler says. She recommends using it every other week at most but notes that, because it’s one of the more hydrating options, she’s never afraid to use it on her hair for fear of drying out her strands (which she can’t say for all clarifying shampoos out there).

Lather: 4

The lather is less than that of a classic foamy shampoo, but it isn’t lacking lather potential—you’ll just have to put in a bit more work with your hands to get the full foaming effect.

Fragrance: 4

The fragrance is similar to the other Olaplex scents, which are fairly neutral.

Efficacy: 5

Engler says this one leaves her hair clean and shiny (and I agree, after testing for myself). It’s a great product to reset your strands after time away from shampoo or product overload.

Color-safe: 5

This one is color-safe, and Engler even says it helped her hair color pop when using it. “It helps to give hair a nice clean slate, so your color can really shine,” she says.

Pros & cons

Pros

  • Increases volume
  • Adds clarity to hair color

Cons

  • Some may prefer a richer lather
Best for curls & coils

Pattern Cleansing Shampoo

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Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Key ingredients
Coconut oil, Shea butter, Aloe extract
Hair type capability
Curls, Coils

Curls and coils are more prone to dryness from the start, so clarifying shampoo can be a tricky product to navigate. However, Pattern makes that easy with this nourishing, yet detoxing formula.

Hydration: 5

This product is the most hydrating on the list, so keep that in mind if you need a detox without dehydration. The plentiful array of botanical oils and extracts helps keep the scalp and hair nourished through and through.

Lather: 3

This one doesn’t lather up much, but that’s quite understandable given the hydrating formula. Plus, those with curls, coils, or dry hair may actually benefit from a product with less lather as they’re generally more nourishing.

Fragrance: 4

The fragrance smells clean with notes of jasmine, sandalwood, and bergamot. It’s not overpowering.

Efficacy: 3

I tested this product on my wavy hair and found it to be more cleansing than my normal shampoo but less than many of the other products on this list. Given how hydrating it is, I was pleasantly surprised by the cleaning power.

Color-safe: 5

Yes, it’s color-safe. The natural oils also help to preserve and enrich color.

Pros & cons

Pros

  • Super hydrating
  • Clears out most residue

Cons

  • Not as powerful as other options
Best for damaged hair

K18 Peptide Prep Clarifying Detox Shampoo

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Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Key ingredients
Charcoal powder, Panthenol, Salicylic acid
Hair type capability
All hair types

Damaged hair needs a product that delivers powerful cleansing power to keep the strands healthy and clear to take in moisture, but also a product that repairs already present damage—this bond-building formula does just that. Salicylic acid helps to clear out dead skin on the scalp too, making it multi-functional for both a strand and scalp detox. 

Hydration: 4

I was shocked to feel how soft my hair was after using this product for the first time. The formula isn’t stripping but still delivers on efficacy.

Lather: 5

I found it easy to work this formula into my hair, so I didn’t have to use as much product at the start. The dark color foams up into a gray hue and always rinses clean.

Fragrance: 4

The fragrance smells faintly of citrus but isn’t too strong.

Efficacy: 5

I tested this product after oiling my hair and putting it in a slicked-back ponytail with gel… safe to say my stands were desperate for a deep clean. With only one cleanse, and a pretty quick cleanse at that, my hair was back to its cleanest state and my scalp looked clean and fresh too.

Color-safe: 5

The formula is color-safe and always rinses clean, so don’t be intimidated by the dark hue of the charcoal powder

Pros & cons

Pros

  • Helps repair & protect damaged hair
  • Salicylic acid clears out scalp buildup

Cons

  • Not the best for dry or sensitive scalps
Best for scalp

Act+Acre Cold Processed Hair Cleanse

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Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Key ingredients
Apple amino acids, Baobab oil, Glycerin
Hair type capability
All hair types

If typical clarifying shampoos are just too harsh for your strands, this formula will stand out amongst the rest. Rather than an ultra-sudsy foam, this creamy formula ever-so-gently removes buildup and oil from the scalp and strands, without disturbing the moisture barrier. It sounds too good to be true, but this clarifying shampoo really does help restore moisture in the hair. Honorable mention to the brand’s Curl Cleanse, which is another great product to consider if you have curly or coily strands.

Hydration: 4

Both myself and mindbodygreen’s senior beauty editor Jamie Schneider tested this shampoo and agree: It’s not as drying as many other options, but our hair still feels dryer than normal right after cleansing.

Lather: 5

“Very impressive lather! It doesn’t take much work at all for it to bubble into a foam,” Schneider says.

Fragrance: 4

The light fragrance includes notes of cardamom, iris, violet, and sandalwood. I love this scent, but it may not be for everyone.

Efficacy: 5

I knew this product was designed to be gentle, so I went in not expecting much cleansing power but I was proven wrong. My hair feels impressively clean after using this every time no matter how much oil and gel there was to cut through.

Color-safe: 3

This one is sulfate-free and filled with botanical antioxidants which are great for keeping hair vibrant. “However, the brand’s consumer study included 198 women with all hair types, save for color-treated hair—so we can’t say this shampoo is 100% color-safe,” Schneider says. If your hair color is easily stripped, pick another option from the list.

Pros & cons

Pros

  • Gentle yet effective
  • Helps clear scalp buildup too

Cons

  • Not the best pick for color-treated hair
Best gentle

Davines SOLU Shampoo

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Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Image by mbg creative
Key ingredients
Panthenol, Hyaluronic acid, Buckwheat extract
Hair type capability
All hair types

This one is great for anyone who wants to freshen up their stands without the chance of drying them out. The formula is rich in buckwheat protein which helps to nourish and protect the strands. After using this product, your strands are sure to shine, without feeling brittle. It's on the gentler side, so keep that in mind if you're looking to clear out product residue from hard gels or hairsprays.

Hydration: 5

It’s not drying and acts more like a normal shampoo with a slightly higher horsepower. After using it my strands were left smooth and shiny, a nod to just how much it preserves moisture.

Lather: 5

This one lathers well and spreads easily.

Fragrance: 4

Like many of the Davines products this one has a natural and floral fragrance. It’s not too strong but may not be for everyone.

Efficacy: 3

This one won’t cut through heaps of gel, oil, and hairspray at the same caliber as the other options on this list, but for many people the gentle extra cleanse is enough to notice a difference in texture and buildup from hard water and environmental pollution. It’s also a great fit for those who prefer to use a clarifying shampoo more often.

Color-safe: 3

This shampoo does contain sulfates which can be stripping for temporary hair dye—think glosses and glazes. I’ve used it on my color-treated hair before and never noticed a problem, but consider another option if you are dealing with sensitive color.

Pros & cons

Pros

  • Never leaves hair dry
  • Lathers well

Cons

  • Won’t cut through stubborn product

Comparing the best clarifying shampoos

ProductSuperlativePriceColor-safeSulfate-freeFragrance
Ouai Detox Shampoo Best overall$32YesNoFloral musk
Olaplex No.4C Bond Maintenance Clarifying Shampoo Best for colored hair$30YesYesClean
Pattern Cleansing Shampoo Best for curls & coils$21YesNoWoodsy floral
K18 Peptide Prep Clarifying Detox Shampoo Best for damaged hair$38YesNoClean citrus
Act+Acre Cold Processed Hair Cleanse Best for scalp$32See reviewYesFloral musk
Davines SOLU Shampoo Best gentle$34See reviewNoFresh floral

Signs you might need a clarifying shampoo

As we mentioned earlier, you don't need to use a clarifying shampoo too often. In fact, once or twice a month is generally enough to get the job done. So part of the process is knowing when to switch out your normal shampoo for a clarifying formula.

Below, a few signs you may need a clarifying cleanse day:

  • Your roots are getting oily faster than normal.
  • You spot product buildup from gel, dry shampoo, mousse, etc., on your strands.
  • You're experiencing more shedding than usual.
  • Your hair looks dull.
  • You've been traveling to areas with poor air or water quality.
  • You haven't washed your hair in over a week.
  • Your hair lacks volume at the root.

Usage tips

These shampoos should be used strategically, so keep the following tips in mind to reap the best possible results:

  1. Don’t go overboard: If you use a clarifying shampoo too often, your strands will feel dry and overworked so keep it between one and three times a month, or as recommended by your hairstylist.
  2. Pre-hydrate your strands: To prevent over-drying from the stronger products, consider applying oil to your strands before cleansing. This will help protect the strand from being completely robbed of moisture.
  3. Ask your stylist: When in doubt, ask your stylist. Plenty of the clarifying shampoos out there will strip color quickly so approach with caution.
  4. Pair with a hair mask: Another way to reduce the chance of dry strands post-cleanse is by using a hair mask in place of conditioner.

FAQ

Should you use clarifying shampoo if you have curly hair?

Curly and textured hair tends to be on the dryer side. As said above, those with dry hair can use a clarifying shampoo once a month but shouldn't exceed that limit—the same goes for curly strands.

What does clarifying shampoo do to bleached hair?

Bleached hair tends to be a bit dryer and more fragile than non-bleached strands. While you can certainly still use a clarifying shampoo on bleached hair every once in a while, it's best to use it with caution and stick to once a month if you start to feel your hair drying out. If you're unsure, ask your stylist.

Are clarifying shampoos necessary?

To be frank—not for everyone. You don't have to use a clarifying shampoo. But if you tend to find buildup on your strands, it's definitely a good idea. If it's solely scalp buildup you're concerned about, then using a scalp detox product or a gentle scrub is a better idea.

The takeaway

Whether it’s styling products, hard water, or natural oil buildup, a clarifying shampoo will help your strands reboot. Consider these products a treat and only use them when needed to prevent over-drying your hair.

Other times, opt for a gentle and hydrating shampoo—our favorite day-to-day hair cleansers here

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