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How To Clarify Curly Hair: The Ultimate Guide

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Table of Contents

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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Most hair care blogs, videos, and professionals will recommend hair clarifying. You probably feel like you should do it, especially when you can see or feel your hair needs extra TLC. But you want to know precisely how to clarify your curly hair and understand what products to use. 

Clarifying refers to deep cleansing the hair and scalp to remove product build-up, oils, and debris to refresh the hair, reduce damage, and provide a better foundation for styling.

This ultimate guide on clarifying curly hair will explain clarifying, provide easy-to-follow instructions on how to do it at home and suggest products that benefit you.

Hair Clarifying Explained 

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

Hair clarifying is a deep-cleansing technique that cleans your hair and scalp and helps restore shine and body to your hair. It’s like giving your hair a reboot or hitting the reset button.

Clarifying is a process that removes dirt, environmental pollutants, product residue, product buildup, grime, and excess oil from the hair that has accumulated over time. It lifts the hair cuticle, eliminating oil and chemical build-up.

If you notice your styling products stopped working, product residue, itching, flakiness, or limp hair, you likely have build-up.

That can block or hinder the hydration and moisture that keeps it healthy and gleaming. It can also lead to dryness, breakage, lackluster hair, or unmanageable hair. 

Your hair and scalp, much like skin, benefit from regular deep cleansing. Just as exfoliation removes dirt and dead skin, a clarifying treatment refreshes your hair, allowing it to breathe and better absorb hair care products.

If you are curly-haired, you know that the term “exfoliate” is not used in the curly hair world. Instead, we refer to it as clarifying. They essentially serve the same purpose and are both necessary for skin and hair health. 

Does Clarifying Benefit All Hair Types? 

When you consider clarifying curly hair, the importance bumps up slightly more than other hair types.

Curlies require slightly more product use in their daily hair care routines. From curling creams to gels, there is always something to apply. And that builds up. 

Having curly hair, you probably do the regular deep conditioning. While this is an excellent step to keeping healthy hair, it can create residue over time, especially if conditioners include ingredients like silicones, mineral oils, petroleum, etc., that don’t wash away with a conventional or traditional shampoo. 

That said, clarifying is not only necessary for curly hair. It is beneficial for all hair types, and recommended that everyone should add it to their hair care regime.

If you’re like most of us, your hair rarely gets attention until you finally notice something’s amiss or it starts to give you trouble. 

Image of pool water.

If left unchecked, chlorine and sea water can build up and cause dryness, discoloration, and breakage.

Additionally, if you have dry, brittle ends, a greasy scalp, or colored hair, particularly blonde or a vividly artificial hue, using a clarifying shampoo to restore your hair is ideal. 

To maintain healthy and vibrant hair, masks and oils are essential. But without regular removal of the residue, these products will eventually cause a barrier between them and your strands.

Consequently, this will impede their ability to effectively condition or strengthen meaningfully. 

Benefits of Hair Clarifying 

Just as exfoliating your skin has benefits like smoother skin texture, cleaner pores, and rejuvenation, there are benefits to clarifying your hair and scalp. Here are some examples: 

  • Rejuvenates the luster and vitality in your hair. 
  • Refreshes your curls and adds more bounce. 
  • Eliminates product accumulation. 
  • Reduces flakiness and itching from build-up. 
  • Allows oils, masks, and conditioners to seep in a work better. 
  • Allows styling products to work better. 
  • Improves the overall health of your hair.

Hair Build-Up: Explained 

Image of product build-up on my hair when wet.
Here is a close-up picture of product build-up on my wet hair.

Product build-up is a common condition that happens over time when our hair becomes “clogged” with dirt, oils, and residue left over from products.

This product build-up can be on the hair leading to dull, lifeless hair strands and a scalp prone to irritation. 

It’s important to remember that clarifying is not the same as shampooing. Conventional everyday shampoos don’t “clarify” the hair and scalp like a clarifying wash; another reason build-up happens and becomes a problem. 

Causes of Accrued Build-up In Hair 

You now know that build-up is common, but it’s essential to understand how and why that happens. There are a few reasons, such as: 

  • Overuse of styling products: If you use the same product(s) daily, they can build up on hair strands over time and become difficult to remove.
  • Hard water: The minerals in hard water can cause products to adhere to your hair more strongly, impeding your ability to rinse them. 
  • Dry shampoo: While this is a great way to extend the life of a wash-and-go, it can also lead to a build-up of product on the scalp. 
  • Certain ingredients in your hair care 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 challenging to manage. 
  • Strictly co-washing your hair: Co-washing doesn’t always remove all the build-up. It contains conditioning agents that deposit an additional product layer onto your strands, leading to excessive build-up, weighing your hair down, or causing hair loss.  

Signs of Product Build-Up 

If you aren’t sure if you have product build-up, here are some signs you may be experiencing to help you figure that out: 

  1. You feel your shampoo lacks its lathering power or doesn’t perform as well as expected. 
  2. You may notice that your hair feels heavy, or products just lay atop it. 
  3. You recently noticed that your everyday products and deep conditioners no longer provide the same quality results as they used to. 
  4. Your hair appears dull, limp, flat, weighed-down, without body or movement. 
  5. Your hair feels dry 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 and scalp feel coated. 
  8. Despite carefully monitoring your regimen’s protein and moisture balance, you remain unable to determine the cause of your hair breakage. 
  9. Knowing you live in an area supplied by mineral-rich water. 
  10. Your hair is experiencing excessive shedding, and your scalp is flaky or itchy, but you can’t pinpoint the root cause. 
  11. Your hair is frizzy or lacks shine. 
  12. Your hair is becoming increasingly dry and unresponsive to moisturizing or conditioning treatments. (This can also be caused by your hair adapting, or growing accustomed, to the specific set of products and washing routine you use.) 

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 

Purchasing clarifying shampoos is not the only way to get the job done. So if you can’t buy one or the option is unavailable, you can create several DIY options using natural ingredients at home.  

Below are some simple recipes: 

The Classic Solution 

Image of bentonite clay, baking soda, and liquid castille soap.

Items you’ll need:

Directions:

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

YouTube video
Video credit: Tweak India

Items you’ll need:

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

Directions:

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.

Items you’ll need:

Directions:

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) + Apple Cider Vinegar Rinse

Image of water apple cider, and vinegar.

Items you’ll need:

Directions:

  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 hair product junkie with first-hand experience of the consequences of using too many products, I genuinely understand how challenging it can be to manage excessive build-up. 

In my quest for the perfect clarifying shampoo, I explored numerous options – only to realize that not all are created equal.

It’s in the active ingredients that I found the actual distinction among shampoos. Through trial and error, I finally found one that works best with my curls! 

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

But if you follow the Curly Girl Method, it’s clear that these sulfates 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

When searching for a good clarifying shampoo, here are some key ingredients to look for: 

To Assist with Build-Up Removal 

  • Salicylic Acid (for the scalp) – This beta-hydroxy acid helps exfoliate the scalp and remove dead skin cells. 
  • Acetic Acid 
  • Sodium Polystyrene Sulfonate 
  • C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate 
  • Sodium Citrate and Trisodium Phosphate. These ingredients are deep cleansers, degreasers, chelators (mineral deposit removers), and pH balanced. 

Gentle Surfactants 

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

Hydrating Agents 

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). 
  • Glycerin or Propylene glycol – traditional humectants. 

Cationic Polymers  

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 

  • 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. 

Note: 

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 mild gentleness. They break down easily in the environment, making them a great option for an eco-friendly, sulfate-free shampoo. 

Check out this list of 25 Best Clarifying Shampoos For Curly Hair. 

How Often Should You Clarify Your Hair? 

Answering this is difficult and largely depends on 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. 

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

If you’re unsatisfied with your current results after trying a clarifying shampoo, 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!

It is essential and wise to clarify your hair at least twice a month if you utilize a multitude of hair products such as gels, mousses, oil-based conditioners, or those containing silicones, mineral oils, and petroleum. This is particularly important as a curly. 

Alternatively, if you apply more water-soluble ingredient products, clarifying can occur once a month or every six weeks.

Test the waters when deciding how often you should cleanse your hair. Find a routine that works for you and maintains your hair health. 

Monthly clarifying is essential to any thorough hair care routine, breathing new life into your hair. But be careful with certain clarifying shampoos that can be too strong for your mane, as excessive use may cause damage.  

Always follow up with a nourishing conditioner or deep conditioning treatment afterward to restore the natural moisture level of your hair

Can Regular Shampoo Be Used to Clarify Hair? 

It is best to use shampoos explicitly formulated for clarifying the hair. Typically, a traditional daily shampoo doesn’t remove build-up, making clarifying shampoos essential. 

But there are conventional average products on the market which contain ALS or SLS and work similarly But here is an average one that is effective. An 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.

It is not marketed as a “clarifying shampoo” but contains ingredients that will “clarify” your hair, like sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate. Also note that even though Cocamidopropyl Betaine is in the formula, the formulation might be a little “milder.” 

FAQs

Is Clarifying Good for Curly Hair? 

Curly hair tends to require more product use which causes build-up. Clarifying is an excellent way to cleanse the scalp and maintain the health of curly hair. 

Is Clarifying My Hair Necessary? 

Clarifying is essential, primarily if you use many products regularly, swim often, have hard water in your shower, or have a naturally oily scalp. 

How Can I Clarify My Hair Naturally? (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. 

What Happens If I Don’t Clarify My Hair? 

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

Can You Clarify Without Sulfates? 

You can clarify without sulfates! It should be noted that the strength of various sulfates differs and may harm your hair and skin. 

Are Clarifying Shampoos Safe for Color-Treated Hair?

Clarifying shampoos can be used on color-treated hair, but it’s essential to be cautious. Frequent use of clarifying shampoos can strip away some of the hair color, so it’s best to use them occasionally or as needed.

If you have color-treated hair, consider using a clarifying shampoo specifically designed for colored hair to minimize color fading, and it’s always a good idea to check with the brand for specific product recommendations.

Does a clarifying shampoo impact hair follicles and hair growth?

No, clarifying shampoos primarily target the hair shaft and scalp, not the hair follicles, so they don’t directly impact hair growth.

HI,I'M VERNA

I’m just a girl who transformed her severely damaged hair into healthy hair. I adore the simplicity of a simple hair care routine, the richness of diverse textures, and the joy of sharing my journey from the comfort of my space.

My mission? To empower others with the tools to restore, and maintain healthy hair, and celebrate the hair they were born with!

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