Clarifying Shampoo vs Conditioning Shampoo: The Differences

May 8, 2023


Verna Meachum

Image of the Ouidad clarifying shampoo vs SheaMoisture Intensive hydration shampoo.

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If you’re someone who regularly washes your hair – who isn’t? – you’ve probably come across the term “clarifying shampoo” and wondered what it means. We get it.

Shampoos could get confusing which is why we are here to help. While regular conditioning shampoos may do a great job cleaning your hair, they may not be enough to tackle build-up from things like product usage, hard water, and chlorine. That’s where clarifying shampoo comes in.

But which do you need? And what’s the difference between the a clarifying shampoo vs conditioning shampoo? In this article, we’re putting them both under the microscope, so you know how to keep your locks fresh, clean, and healthy.

Introduction – Clarifying Shampoo vs Conditioning Shampoo

It’s common for build-up to occur from everyday hair products such as shampoo and styling aids, as well as from hard water containing heavy metals. Using deep conditioning products frequently and excessively can also cause small amounts of conditioning ingredients to accumulate on the hair surface.

Hair care ingredients such as cationic surfactants, conditioning polymers, proteins, and silicone oils are prone to causing build-up on hair surfaces. Silicones are especially difficult to wash away because of their strong lipophilic nature.

Tap water containing calcium and magnesium ions can attach to amino acid sites on hair fibers, causing the build-up of metallic substances. The constant production of sebum can also contribute to this build-up, resulting in greasy hair. This build-up can change the surface properties of the hair fiber.

When hair becomes stiff and unresponsive to conditioning and styling products, it may be due to a build-up of materials.1-3 To solve this problem, a clarifying shampoo is needed, which is specially formulated to dissolve these materials and rinse them off while washing your hair.

So, what is a clarifying shampoo and how does it differ from a conditioning shampoo?

What is a Clarifying Shampoo?

Image of the Kenra clarifying shampoo. Clarifying Shampoo vs Conditioning Shampoo: The Differences

A clarifying shampoo is created to specifically remove any build-up from hair products, such as polymers, residue, and excess oil from the scalp.

After using a clarifying shampoo, your hair should maintain its natural appearance, texture, and curl pattern. However, the shampoo should not remove essential lipids from your hair or cause dryness. The shampoo typically includes a blend of surfactants and does not contain many conditioning ingredients.

Conditioning shampoo is a type of shampoo that is designed to clean and condition your hair at the same time when you wash it. It includes conditioning polymers, natural extracts, emollients, and other hydrating ingredients. In contrast, clarifying shampoo is not a conditioning shampoo.

Who Needs a Clarifying Shampoo? How Often Should You Use It?

Everyone! A clarifying shampoo is recommended for anyone who uses styling aids, such as hairspray and gel, and even conditioners! However, the frequency of use may vary depending on their hair type and texture.

Hair that is natural, virgin, and non-chemically treated does not need to be washed as frequently. Washing them once every ten to fifteen days should be sufficient.

Hair that has been chemically treated is more prone to build-up. This is caused by oxidized amino acid sites along the hair shaft that can form electrostatic bonds with cationic ingredients.

Also, hair that has been chemically modified has a greater tendency to accumulate conditioning products, which makes them more prone to build-up. As a result, they need to be washed at least once a week with a clarifying shampoo for optimal upkeep.

A basic guideline is:

  • Virgin, Non-Chemically Treated – Once every 10 days.
  • Chemically Treated Curly, Textured Hair – Once a week.
  • Afro Hair – Once a week (or as needed).

Suitable Surfactants in A Clarifying Shampoo Formulation

Image of foam to represent surfactants. Clarifying Shampoo vs Conditioning Shampoo: The Differences.

Shampoo formulations rely on surfactants, which are organic chemical compounds that clean and create foam. A typical example is sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) present in almost every other facial, body, and hair cleansing product.

An ideal surfactant for a clarifying shampoo should be capable of accomplishing the following tasks:

● Clean hair fibers effectively.

● Get rid of build-up.

● Restore the natural texture of hair fibers.

● Make it easy to comb and brush hair.

Shampoos often contain sulfates, like SLS, because they create foam quickly and are cost-effective. Sulfates tend to remove an excessive amount of moisture, resulting in dry and unhealthy hair. Additionally, they can cause dryness on the scalp and increase the risk of irritation.

If you have sensitive skin and hair and you’re experiencing side effects from sulfate shampoos, it may be worth trying a sulfate-free product to see if your symptoms improve or go away.

Three main cleansing surfactants are recommended for use with a clarifying shampoo.

They are:

1) Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate. This mild anionic surfactant is gentle but effective at producing a large amount of foam that has effective cleansing properties. It does a great job of removing sebum, waxes, and lipid residue deposited over the hair shaft. It can also dissolve cationic ingredients. Its mild nature hydrates the hair and won’t make hair dry.

2)Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI). SCI is yet another mild anionic surfactant that is strongly recommended for a sulfate-free clarifying formulation. Isethionate offers a rich creamy lather with a good level of hydration during washing boosting the fiber and scalp water content. 

3) Lauryl Glucoside. Lauryl glucoside is a type of green surfactant that is sugar-based. It is excellent for cleansing and dispersing oils, and produces a moderate amount of foam. These surfactants are sustainable and easily break down over time.

The three surfactants mentioned above are gentle enough for cleansing without damaging the scalp or hair.

Conditioning Ingredients in a Clarifying Shampoo

Is it possible to include conditioning ingredients in a clarifying shampoo? Definitely! It’s beneficial to have a low to moderate level of conditioning ingredients, especially ingredients that make it easier to comb through wet hair, in the formulation.

Combing wet hair can be challenging because the hair fibers swell in water during rinsing. To make it easier, adding fiber-softening agents can reduce friction and make combing smoother.

However, a clarifying shampoo should not be loaded with conditioning ingredients and also should not have oils, emollients, and silicones.

When purchasing a clarifying shampoo, be sure to thoroughly check the ingredient list to avoid these ingredients.

The pH of a Clarifying Shampoo

Image of ph strips. Clarifying Shampoo vs Conditioning Shampoo: The Differences.

Whether a clarifying shampoo can effectively remove polymeric and metallic build-up depends on its pH. When the shampoo is slightly acidic, metals tend to dissolve more easily.

Metal chelating agents like EDTA are more effective when used under moderate acidic pH conditions.

Additionally, the pH range of 4.00 – 5.00 is mildly acidic and falls close to the isoelectric point of keratin amino acids. This acidity helps align the cuticles of the hair, resulting in improved hair health and surface properties. 4,5,

To eliminate metallic and polymeric build-up, it is best to use a clarifying shampoo with an acidic pH range between 4.00 and 5.00. To ensure the shampoo’s pH is appropriate, make sure to read the label or ask the retailer/manufacturer.

Can a Conditioning Shampoo be Used as Clarifying Shampoo?

Image of the Acure Hydrating shampoo. Clarifying Shampoo vs Conditioning Shampoo: The Differences.

No, a conditioning shampoo should not be used as a clarifying shampoo. These conditioning shampoos are generally loaded with cationic polymers, emollients, and natural extracts or proteins.

The purpose of a conditioning shampoo is to clean and detangle hair, enhance the moisture level, lubricate the hair shaft, and make hair softer in preparation for styling.

Although these shampoos contain conditioning ingredients that we usually want to eliminate when we have build-up in our hair, they are not designed to remove polymeric materials.

Using a conditioning shampoo as a clarifying shampoo is not recommended. Clarifying shampoos are formulated specifically to remove build-up from hair.


To maintain healthy hair, consumers need to use clarifying shampoo regularly. Its purpose is to cleanse the hair of any product buildup, leaving it looking and feeling natural.

Build-up of substances such as polymers, silicones, proteins, and cationics can alter the surface characteristics of hair strands, leading to daily challenges in styling and hair management.

Choosing the right surfactant blend with a suitable pH level is required for efficient cleansing and removal of build-up materials.

How you should use a clarifying shampoo depends on the type of hair you have, its texture, and how much build-up there is.


1. Marsh, J. M.; Gray, J.; Tosti, A., Healthy Hair. Springer International Publishing: 2015.

2. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 2005.

3. Evans, T.; Wickett, R. R., Practical Modern Hair Science. Allured Business Media: 2012.

4. Parreira, H. C., On the isoelectric point of human hair. Journal of Colloid and Interface Science 1980, 75 (1), 212-217.

5. Malinauskyte, E.; Cornwell, P. A.; Reay, L.; Shaw, N.; Petkov, J., Effect of equilibrium pH on the structure and properties of bleach-damaged human hair fibers. Biopolymers 2020, 111 (11), e23401.

6. Gavazzoni Dias, M. F.; de Almeida, A. M.; Cecato, P. M.; Adriano, A. R.; Pichler, J., The Shampoo pH can Affect the Hair: Myth or Reality? Int J Trichology 2014, 6 (3), 95-9.


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