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Curly hair is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. It could be super-defined one day and a frizzy concoction the next day – and it's never exactly the same from one head to another. Our mission is to equip you with the necessary tools for restoring and maintaining healthy locks and celebrating the hair you were born with! 

How To Clarify Curly Hair: The Ultimate Guide

February 25, 2023


Verna Meachum

Product build-up creates a barrier on your hair strand that will deprive your hair from receiving the proper moisture. Learn why it's important to clarify your hair.

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Curl care

I am highly experienced in the beauty industry and specialize in writing for brands and websites that focus on curly hair care. Moreover, I actually have curly hair and have curly-haired children with varying hair textures. I am also surrounded by curly-haired friends, including curly hairstylists and curly-haired family members. You get the point :) I’m well-versed in the language and nuances of curly hair care, styling tips, and product recommendations.

Furthermore, I collaborate with my friend who has a Ph.D. in organic and inorganic chemistry and works as an R&D Chemist to help us navigate through the misinformation around curly hair care. He advises us on Hair Care Science to ensure we are well-informed.

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Last Updated on April 12, 2023 by Verna Meachum

Have you ever wondered why, when, or how to clarify your hair? If you’ve asked yourself this question, then undoubtedly, you have sensed that your hair is off and not always feeling or looking its best. It could be oily, limp, weighed-down, or uncooperative – the list goes on!

Maybe your hair stopped responding to your favorite styling products or you’ve noticed an excessive build-up of product residue.

In either case, your hair may need a good clarifying session!

So, how can you restore your hair to its normal state of feeling and looking its best?

That’s what this blog is about today – I’m sharing my ultimate guide on how to clarify curly hair!

I will not only explain what clarifying is, but offer some signs that you might need to do it, plus provide easy-to-follow instructions on how to do it at home, and offer product suggestions that can help you.

Let’s get started!

What is Clarifying?

Curly haired girl washing hair in the shower. How To Clarify Curly Hair: The Ultimate Guide.

Clarifying is a process that removes dirt, environmental pollutants, product residue, grime, and oil from the hair that has accumulated over time.

It is a deep-cleansing technique that helps restore shine and body to your hair; it’s like giving your hair a reboot!

Build-up on your hair can be an obstacle, blocking the necessary hydration and moisture that keeps it healthy and gleaming. Unchecked, this may lead to dryness, breakage, lackluster hair, or unmanageable hair.

Your hair and scalp need to be cleaned in the same way that you cleanse your skin. Sometimes your skin needs a good exfoliation to remove the dirt and grime so that it can breathe and soak in your skincare products. The same applies to your hair!

In the curly-haired world, we don’t use the term “exfoliate” – we refer to it as clarifying, which essentially serves the same purpose.

What Does Clarifying Do To My Hair?

When you clarify your hair it refreshes your curls like no one’s business. It’ll help bring the bounce and vitality back.

By clarifying your hair, you can eliminate hair product accumulation and improve the overall health and appearance of your hair.

You may not realize this, but even if you don’t use lots of styling goods, your hair can still become weighed down by conditioners and co-washes and require a reboot.

Clarifying is also beneficial for scalp health. It can help reduce dandruff and alleviate other common scalp issues, such as an itchy scalp or excess sebum.

Who Needs to Clarify Their Hair?

To put it simply, this is beneficial to all.

Curly ladies and gents, it’s essential to remember the importance of clarifying your hair. No matter if you deep condition regularly, rarely use styling products, or are even very careful with how often you shampoo – don’t forget that you must clarify your hair at some point.

If you’re like the majority of us, your hair rarely gets much attention until something’s amiss. When it does start to give you trouble, finding out what caused this is naturally your first move.

Unfortunately, numerous individuals are unaware of the need for this and how to start.

If you swim in the pool regularly, you should consider clarifying your hair once a month. Chlorine can build up and cause discoloration, dryness, and breakage if it’s left unchecked.

Image of pool water. How To Clarify Curly Hair: The Ultimate Guide.

If you have dry, brittle ends or a greasy scalp, it’s the ideal time to grab that clarifying shampoo and get to work on restoring your hair.

If you have dyed hair, particularly if your color is blonde or a vividly artificial hue, you’ll need to clarify.

If you use products that contain heavy silicones, mineral oils, petroleum, etc., these are not easily washed away by conventional shampoos. The surfactants (cleaning agents) in regular shampoo alone may not remove these substances from the hair.

To keep your hair looking healthy and vibrant, oils and masks are essential. But without regular removal of the residue, these products can cause a barrier to form between them and your strands.

Consequently, this will impede their ability to effectively condition, strengthen, or moisturize in any meaningful way.

What is Build Up?

Image of product build up on my hair when wet. How To Clarify Curly Hair: The Ultimate Guide.
Here is a close up picture of product build-up on my wet hair.

Product build-up is a common problem that occurs when our hair becomes clogged with dirt, oils, and residue left over from products. This build-up of product can build up on the hair over time, leading to dull, lifeless hair and a scalp that’s prone to irritation.

It is important to regularly cleanse your hair and scalp of any build-up to ensure healthy, beautiful curls. Regular clarifying treatments are a great way to keep your hair and scalp in tip-top condition.

Clarifying treatments help to remove product build-up, dirt, and debris from your hair and scalp.

It’s important to remember that clarifying is not the same as shampooing, so don’t use a clarifying shampoo more than once or twice a month.

Remember: how often you clarify your hair depends on how much build-up is present, how often you use hair products, how frequently you wash your hair, and how often you swim.

Why You Might Have Accrued Build-up

It’s essential to understand how and why you might have product build-up on your hair. There are a few reasons this can happen:

Overuse of styling products: If you find yourself using the same product(s) every day, they can build up over time and become difficult to remove.

Hard water: The minerals in hard water can cause products to adhere to your hair more strongly, which can impede your ability to rinse them away.

Dry shampoo: While this is a great way to extend the life of a wash-and-go, it can also lead to a buildup of product on the scalp.

Certain ingredients in your products: Products that contain heavy silicones, mineral oils, petroleum, conditioning agents, polyquats, heavy oils, butter, etc., are not easily washed away by conventional shampoos.

Using the same shampoo and conditioner: If you’ve been using the same shampoo and conditioner for a while, you may find that your hair is becoming dull and difficult to manage.

Strictly co-washing your hair: As great as co-washing is, it doesn’t always remove all of the dirt and oils that can build up. Co-washing contains conditioning agents that deposit an additional layer of product onto your strands, which can lead to excessive build-up. Weighing your hair down with multiple products can prevent them from gaining the hydration they need during cleansing and lead to damage, as diminished moisture levels cause dryness. Also, taking proper care of your scalp is essential, yet co-washing can have a detrimental impact – particularly if you are struggling with a flaky scalp or hair loss.

Signs of Product Build-Up

If you are experiencing any of the following, product build-up may impede your hair’s health:

  1. Your shampoo feels like it’s lacking in its lathering power or doesn’t seem to be performing as well as you expected.
  2. You may notice your hair feels heavy or products or that products seem to just lay atop it.
  3. You recently noticed that your everyday products and deep conditioners are no longer providing the same quality results; they’re just not working like they used to.
  4. Your hair appears dull, limp, flat, weighed-down, without body or movement.
  5. Your hair feels dry even after applying moisturizers, oils, and styling products.
  6. After shampooing, you may notice a white residue on your scalp and/or hair.
  7. Your hair is becoming increasingly dry and unresponsive to any moisturizing or conditioning treatments. Note: For some individuals, their hair may go through a period in which it seems to no longer respond positively to moisturizing products. This can be caused by your hair adapting, or growing accustomed, to the specific set of products and washing routine you use.
  8. Your hair and scalp feel coated.
  9. Despite carefully monitoring the protein and moisture balance in your regimen, you remain unable to determine the cause of your hair breakage.
  10. Knowing you live in an area supplied by mineral-rich water.
  11. Your hair is experiencing excessive shedding and your scalp is flaky or itchy, but you can’t seem to pinpoint the root cause.
  12. Your hair is frizzy or lacks shine.

Side Note: Did you know that product build-up on the hair shaft is one of the leading culprits behind unrecognizable hair breakage not associated with protein or moisture deficiencies?

How to Clarify at Home: DIY Recipes

If you want to do a DIY hair clarifying treatment, below are some simple recipes you can use in the comfort of your own home.

The best news is that you already have all the tools right there with you, so no need to purchase an additional product.

The Classic Solution

Image of bentonite clay, baking soda, and liquid castille soap. How To Clarify Curly Hair: The Ultimate Guide.

Items you’ll need:


1) Create a paste by stirring together the liquid Castile soap or baby shampoo with baking soda. 2) Add the tea tree oil to the mixture and you’re done!

Simple Clarifying Solution

Video credit: Tweak India

Items you’ll need:

  • 2 tbsp. Lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp. Olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. Salt


1) Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt in a bowl.

2) Massage into your scalp and hair (roots to ends) and leave in for up to 20 minutes.

3) Follow up with a shampoo and conditioner.

Sea Salt Scrub Solution

Image of liquid castille soap, aloe vera gel, and coarse salt. How To Clarify Curly Hair: The Ultimate Guide.

Items you’ll need:


1) Mix the Liquid Castile Soap, Aloe Vera Gel, and Sea Salt in a bowl.

2) Work the scrub into your scalp and hair from roots to ends.

3) Leave in for up to 5 minutes before rinsing out.

4) Follow up with shampoo and conditioner.

Bentonite Clay (or Rhassoul Clay) + ACV Rinse

Image of water apple cider, and vinegar. How To Clarify Curly Hair: The Ultimate Guide.

Items you’ll need:


  1. To create your mixture, place all the ingredients in a non-metal bowl: clay, oil, apple cider vinegar, and the essential oil of your choice.
  2. Stir with a non-metallic spoon until fully blended.
  3. Allow the mixture to rest and aerate for 20 seconds.
  4. Incorporate the water and stir vigorously to dissolve any lumps. You should see a thick, creamy texture similar to that of yogurt.
  5. Beginning at the roots, evenly distribute the mask to your damp hair in subsections until all of it is saturated.
  6. Shield your hair with a shower cap for 20 minutes.
  7. Rinse it out thoroughly with warm water.
  8. Follow up with a shampoo and condition.

What to Look For in a Clarifying Shampoo

As a former product junkie, with first-hand experience of the consequences that come from using too many products, I understand firsthand how difficult it can be to manage excessive build-up.

In my search for the perfect clarifying shampoo, I explored many options – only to realize that not all of them are created equal.

It’s in the active ingredients where I can see the true distinction among shampoos. Through trial and error, eventually, I found one that works best with my curs!

The three most common sulfates for cleansing hair are Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.

Yet, if you follow the Curly Girl Method, it’s clear that these sulfates are a no-go and should be avoided. Sulfates have received a bad reputation, however, it all boils down to the formulation!

Comparing the “-eth” versions (sodium laureth sulfate) to their “-yl” counterparts(sodium lauryl sulfate), they are milder on your skin and hair. Additionally, ammonium versions tend to be much milder than sodium versions.

Eric Schweiger, M.D., founder of Schweiger Dermatology Group

If you’re looking for a clarifying shampoo to help remove the build-up, here are some key ingredients to look for: 

  • Salicylic Acid (for the scalp) – This is a beta-hydroxy acid that helps exfoliate the scalp and remove dead skin cells.
  • Sodium Polystyrene Sulfonate
  • Sodium Citrate and Trisodium Phosphate are common ingredients in clarifying shampoos. These ingredients are deep cleansers, degreasers, chelators (mineral deposit removers), and pH balanced.

If your shampoo contains any of the surfactants below, it could be potent enough to clarify and revitalize your hair.

  • Lauryl Betaine
  • Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate – mild, rich creamy lather, hydrating (Preferred).
  • Sodium Cococyl Isethionate – mild, hydrating (Preferred).
  • Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate
  • Decyl Glucoside, Coco Glucoside, Lauryl Glucoside – these are green alternatives, sugar-based nonionic (Preferred).
  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine

A crucial factor when selecting a hydrating agent to include in a formulation is its compatibility with the other ingredients, such as the primary surfactants.

Top hydrating ingredients for a clarifying shampoo:

  • Betaine – a natural water-holding molecule obtained from beetroot extract (Preferred).
  • Propanediol – is a natural, green alternative to traditional humectants (Preferred).

Thanks to cationic polymers, wet and dry combing has never been simpler. These unique compounds bind to the protein residues on your hair for a slicker feel that aids in detangling. Plus, they promote better adherence to other active ingredients.

Our favorite cationic polymers for a clarifying shampoo are:

  • Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride – guar-derived hair conditioner.
  • Polyquaternium-10, – cellulose-derived hair conditioner for superior wet and dry combing.

Other additives to look for in a clarifying shampoo formulation:

  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine – a mild co-surfactant to boost foam generation.
  • Cocoamphodiacetate – another mild cleansing agent.
  • Fragrance – natural aromatic essential oils are better than synthetic fragrances.
  • Preservatives – avoid DMDM-Hydantoin and Imadazolidinyl Urea. Instead, go for green alternatives, such as Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, Hexylene Glycol, etc.

It is vital to understand that sulfonates are not the same as sulfate, even though many clarifying shampoos contain this mix of agents. The two surfactants have distinct chemical compositions, cleaning capabilities and foam production abilities.

Olefin sulfonates are commonly used for shampoos, due to their exceptional gentleness and mildness. Plus, they break down easily in the environment, making them a great option for an eco-friendly, sulfate-free shampoo.

Here is a list of clarifying shampoos: 25 Best Clarifying Shampoos For Curly Hair

How Often Should You Clarify Your Hair?

Answering the question of how often you should clarify your hair is difficult and largely dependent on various factors such as your unique hair type, lifestyle habits, frequency of shampooing, and overall care routine.

The ideal clarifying cycle may range anywhere from a single weekly treatment to even once every couple of months; it all depends!

If you’re new to the healthy hair journey, I would recommend that you start by doing so once a month. This will help eliminate any hair product build-up or residue that could be weighing down your curls from your old regimen.

If you’re unsatisfied with your current results after trying a clarifying shampoo, then increase the frequency or opt for a chelating shampoo to effectively improve hair health and manageability.

image of Kinky curly come clean.
One of my favorite chelating shampoos! Psst – a chelating shampoo doubles as a clarifying shampoo!

If you’re utilizing a multitude of hair products such as mousses, gels, oil-based conditioners, or those containing silicones, mineral oils, and petroleum – it is wise to clarify your hair at least twice a month.

Contrarily, if you are utilizing more water-soluble ingredients in your products, clarifying only needs to take place once a month or every six weeks. Test the waters when it comes to deciding how often you should clarify your hair!

To maintain your hair’s luster, use a clarifying shampoo once per month: its properties will help break down product build-up that other shampoos may not reach.

Monthly clarifying is an essential component of any thorough hair care routine, breathing new life into your hair each month.

Be careful with certain clarifying shampoos that can be too strong for your mane, as excessive use may cause damage. Make sure to follow up with a nourishing conditioner or deep conditioning treatment afterward to restore the natural moisture level of your hair.


Is Clarifying Good for Curly Hair?

Taking the time to clarify your hair once a month is incredibly advantageous. Not only does it deep clean and rid your hair and scalp of product build-up, but clarifying can also get rid of other unwanted impurities that may be causing your hair to become limp or lackluster.

In this way, regular clarifying gives you an opportunity for a brand new start with healthy, refreshed hair.

Is Clarifying My Hair Necessary?

If you use many hair products but can’t seem to get your locks the moisture they deserve, it may be time to clarify. This will help keep your mane healthy and free of product residue build-up.

How Can I Clarify My Hair Naturally? Or, What Can I Use Instead of a Clarifying Shampoo?

Clarifying your hair can be done with either apple cider vinegar or citric acids, such as lemon juice. To get the most out of this treatment, let it sit on your locks for a few minutes while they are covered and heat is applied gently. This will help ensure any build-up is removed effectively.

Although acid rinses are usually safe for most hair types, it’s important to take caution when using them because even a diluted rinse can cause harm.

Apple cider vinegar is a great way to balance pH levels and add shine, however, it is an acid. Unfortunately, it does not contain chelating ingredients or detergents that are used to remove product build-up, dirt, or oil which limits its cleaning effectiveness.

Acidic treatments may cause the charged particles in some conditioners and styling products to temporarily lose their charge, meaning that it is possible to rinse out some of that residue.

For many, a vinegar rinse can be used weekly without any harm done to their hair. On the other hand, some hair is damaged right after using one. You must do a patch test on your hair before trying out this method to guarantee it’s safe and effective for your mane.

While many curlies opt to use Bentonite Clay to rid themselves of excessive oils, it may not be effective if you have build-up from conditioners.

What Happens If I Don’t Clarify My Hair?

If you don’t properly clarify your hair, it could become unmanageable and feel like straw. Furthermore, the build-up can lead to breakage of the strands and even more extreme cases – loss of hair.

How Do I Know My Hair Has Product Build-Up?

Does your hair feel weighed down, greasy, and tough to style? Does it appear like no matter how much moisture you give it, nothing helps? The culprit is most likely product build up.

Can You Clarify Without Sulfates?

Absolutely, you can clarify without sulfates! It should be noted that the strength of various types of sulfates differ and may have a negative impact on both your hair and skin.

To make the most out of your skin and hair care, look for items containing Cocobetaines or Decyl glucoside; these are milder surfactants that don’t contain sulfates.

Can a regular shampoo be used as a clarifying shampoo?

This is such a good question! The answer is Yes!

While there are shampoos that have been specifically designed to clarify the hair and scalp, any average shampoo which contains ALS or SLS will also be quite effective.

A good example of this is the VO5 Normal Hair Balancing shampoo.

Image of VO5 shampoo.

Ingredients: Water (Aqua, Eau), Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Ammonium Chloride, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Fragrance (Parfum), DMDM Hydantoin, Citric Acid, Tetrasodium EDTA, Benzyl Salicylate, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Linalool, Yellow 6 (CI 15985), Sodium Chloride, Polysorbate 20, Tocopheryl Acetate, Panthenol, Ascorbic Acid, Niacinamide, Biotin.

As you’ll note, it is not marketed as a “clarifying shampoo” but it contains ingredients that will “clarify” your hair, like sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate.

The point I’m trying to convey is that you don’t need to rely on a product labeled as “clarifying shampoo” for your clarifying needs.

Also note, even though Cocamidopropyl Betaine is in the formula, it may make the formulation a little “milder”.

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