Fact: One of the best—and scariest—things I ever begrudgingly did for my curly hair was to start clarifying it on a regular basis. Yup, I’m talkin’ the sudsy, sulfate-filled clarifying shampoos that you’re told to ~*nEvER*~ use on curly hair types. And I get it: I used to be terrified of that “squeaky-clean” feeling, and I genuinely believed that any clarifying or “deep-cleansing” formula, sulfate-filled or not, would completely damage my curl health.
But, uh, surprise! That’s all false (more on that below). In fact, once I started using a clarifying curl shampoo every few weeks, I stopped having “bad” hair days. My thin, fine curls were more voluminous and less straw-like—shocker, right?—and my scalp felt less itchy and irritated. And now, I’ve made it my mission to help all curly hair types break the stigma around clarifying shampoos, so they can get on my level of curl ~enlightenment~. So let’s get into the quick facts, before I break down the best clarifying shampoos for curly hair, below.
Is clarifying shampoo okay for curly hair?
Technically, no; clarifying shampoo isn’t “good” for any hair type, but yes, it is necessary for curly hair from time to time. Clarifying shampoos are usually filled with harsh detergents called sulfates, which break down and strip the grease, oil, and residue from your strands, leaving them “reset” and refreshed—and also incredibly dry. It’s kinda like taking antibiotics: They’ll thankfully kill off the bad bacteria in your body…but also some of the good bacteria too. Very necessary at times, but not something you want to do daily.
A lot of styling products (think: leave-in conditioners, butters, hair gels, etc.) contain waxes or silicones that can only be removed from your hair strand with sulfate-filled shampoos. So even if you’re diligently co-washing your hair every few days—but you're also using products prone to building up—you won’t be doing much to really clean your scalp and hair strands, which will eventually leave your curls lank, dried-out, and/or greasy over time.
How often should I clarify my curly hair?
There’s no set rule on this—how often you clarify your hair depends on how your hair feels and which products you’re using, but in general, you can use a clarifying shampoo once a month on curly or natural hair (think: 3a curls to 4c hair). Just use it in place of your regular shampoo once or twice a month, max, then follow up with a deep conditioner to mitigate the dryness afterwards.
That said, there are exceptions: If you’re following the Curly Girl Method (CGM), which has you avoiding any products that contain silicones, waxes, and mineral oils—aka all the ingredients that lead to buildup—you shouldn’t really need to clarify monthly, unless your hair is ultra-fine and prone to oil. Instead, the Curly Girl Method says you should clarify just once at the very beginning of your CGM journey to “reset” your hair and create a clean, stripped-down foundation (need a reset-wash shampoo? Check out #6 on this list).
What to look for in a clarifying shampoo for curly hair
Sulfates or no sulfates
You have two choices when it comes to clarifying shampoos: formulas with sulfates, or formulas without sulfates (nope, not all clarifying formulas necessarily contain sulfates, especially if they're created for curly hair). In general, if you're using silicone-based products, or you're not following the Curly Girl Method, you'd benefit from a sulfate-based clarifying shampoo to help "reset" your curls once a month. But if you're living that silicone-free life, you can opt for a sulfate-free clarifier, which will be a bit less drying than a sulfate-filled formula.
Hydrating and moisturizing ingredients
No matter what, a clarifying shampoo is going to dry out your curls to some extent. To help mitigate some of the effects, scan the ingredients list and looking for moisturizing oils (like jojoba, argan, coconut, castor) or butters (like shea and cocoa).
Got all that? Good. Now take a peak at a few of our top shampoo picks, then keep reading for the deep dive.
Our top curl clarifying shampoo picks of 2022
- Best gentle/mild sulfate shampoo: Twist Hit Reset Light Clarifying Shampoo
- Best sulfate-free: MopTop Detox Shampoo Citrus Medley
- Best drugstore: Dove Nutritive Solutions Shampoo Clarify & Hydrate
- Best all-natural formula: Avalon Organics Clarifying Lemon Shampoo
- Best for dandruff: Head & Shoulders Supreme Detox & Hydrate Shampoo
- Best for Curly Girl Method: Bumble and Bumble Sunday Shampoo
- Best for itchy scalps: Eden BodyWorks Natural Shampoo in Peppermint Tea Tree
- Best for 4c hair: Aunt Jackie's Flaxseed Purify Me Moisturizing Co-wash Cleanser
Cool, now that you’ve got the basics on clarifying, check out the 23 best clarifying shampoos for curly hair below!
The MVP cleanser in this clarifying shampoo? Ammonium laureth sulfate—a slightly gentler, less-stripping sulfate that still suds, still gives you that super-clean scalp feeling, and still breaks down intense build-up, without totally drying your curls out, thanks to a dose of aloe vera and jojoba oil.
This clarifying shampoo for curly hair is not only free of sulfates, but also free of parabens, dyes, and insoluble silicones (i.e., silicones that build up on your hair). What it does have: Coconut-based cleansers that help dissolve gunk and build-up, so your curls feel lighter and more voluminous.
Anyone with an itchy or flaking scalp should start washing with this clarifying shampoo ASAP. It uses zinc pyrithione (the MVP of flake fighters) to rid of dandruff, along with coconut water and argan oil to help hydrate your curls and offset some of the drying effects that usually come with dandruff shampoos.
This lightweight clarifying shampoo combines deep-cleaning rosemary leaf extract, witch hazel, and tea tree oil with ultra-hydrating coconut oil for curly hair that’s clean, soft, and bouncy. The best part? The formula is topped off with hydrolyzed soy protein, which helps repair damaged, brittle strands.
This clarifying shampoo is filled with tons of sulfates (!) and absolutely zero silicones, making it perfect for your "reset" wash if you're following the Curly Girl Method and need to strip the silicones from your curly or wavy hair. Take note, though: This formula is as clarifying as it gets, so if your curls are dry or damaged, limit this one to reset washes only.
As someone who has curly hair and a perpetually flaky, itchy scalp, I know firsthand how hard it can be to treat one without destroying the other. Which is why I love this clarifying shampoo, which uses tea tree oil and peppermint oil to help soothe itching, along with gentle surfactants to deeply clean your roots.
If you've got a lucky mix of curly hair and oily, greasy hair (hi, it me), it can be tempting to feel like you need to wash your hair all the time. But resist! It'll just dry out your curls. Instead, when you do suds up every few days, reach for this vegan and sulfate-free cleanser that gently breaks down scalp oils while hydrating your dry curls with lavender oil and avocado oil.
K, so like I said, there's no such thing as a super-gentle clarifying shampoo, because inherently, they gotta strip a bit (including your curls) to do their job. BUT, this sulfate-free clarifying shampoo is as moisturizing as it gets, thanks to its mix of shea butter and coconut, linseed, and avocado oils, making it the best deep-cleanser for 4c hair (or any type-4 hair).
You know those days when your curls are feeling a little weighed down, dull, or greasy, and you want a touch more cleansing powers than usual? That's when you reach for this sulfate-free shampoo, which has just enough surfactants to make your hair feel clean clean (not stripped), along with aniseed and castor oils to keep your moisture balance in check.
Sorry, this clarifying shampoo won't magically give you glossy Hollywood hair of Anomaly founder Priyanka Chopra (wow, rude), but it will dissolve gunky product buildup and absorb excess scalp oils with a dose of charcoal. This one is on the more ~intense~ end of the dryness spectrum, so make sure to use sparingly and with a good deep conditioner.
This is incredible-smelling clarifying shampoo (cherry! Mango! Papaya!) kinda makes you feel like you're bathing in a straight-up smoothie. Not only is the formula packed with fruit enzymes to help gobble up scalp oils, but it's gentle enough that it won't leave your curls feeling like straw after rinsing. Hot tip: Really bring the whole ~natural~ vibe by slathering on a DIY hair mask before you shower.
Inside this can is a super-fluffy, shaving-cream-like mousse that’s actually a clarifying shampoo. It uses sea kelp, eucalyptus, and volcanic ash powder (hence the black tint) to get rid of buildup and oil. Pump out a golf-ball-size amount of foam and massage it into your scalp and curls as needed, followed by conditioner.
Okay, I'm truly obsessed with this clarifying drugstore shampoo from Dove—partially because of the formula, but also because of the incredibly affordable price. The charcoal-spiked formula easily removes build-up and absorbs excess grease from oily scalps without destroying your curls in the process.
If just thinking about the words “clarifying shampoo” makes your already-dry curls feel even dryer, please allow this ultra-hydrating formula to change your mind. As lavender, rosemary, and chamomile extracts clean your scalp and hair, a blend of argan oil, keratin, and jojoba-seed extract strengthen and moisturize even the driest, most damaged of hair.
This gentle but effective clarifying shampoo removes product build-up while simultaneously hydrating curly hair with aloe, panthenol, and green tea extract, making it the ultimate reset cleanser for tighter hair textures that need the occasional clarifiyng rinse.
If you're dealing with the hair effects of hard water, you need the heavy stuff to break down the build-up. Enter, this clarifying shampoo that uses charcoal to absorb dirt and excess oil, along with disodium EDTA to soften hard-water build-up. Just know your curls will feel a bit dry after this one, so follow with a hair mask to keep your curls happy.
Dealing with build-up and damaged curls? This clarifying shampoo is infused with apple cider vinegar to get rid of excess oil and irritating flakes—plus a dose of hydrolyzed keratin to repair and strengthen your hair for a smooth, shiny finish. After you wash, follow up with a deep-conditioning treatment, and you'll be good to go.
Those with color-treated hair should be especially careful when using clarifying shampoos, since most deep-cleaning formulas can also fade your dye job. This sulfate-free shampoo uses gentle cleansers and sea water to get rid of build-up without stripping color, and it's also full of minerals, aloe vera, and honey to moisturize your curly hair and enhance its shine.
If you have curly and color-treated hair, this is the clarifying shampoo for you. The incredibly gentle, curl-friendly formula is infused with lemon extracts to help to absorb excess oil on the scalp, smooth your cuticles, and make your hair color look super shiny and vibrant while still dissolving gunk from your scalp.
This clarifying shampoo gel turns into a lightweight foam that removes dirt, oil, and build-up to deep-clean your hair and scalp without making your curls feel too dry or stripped. It's all thanks to oil-absorbing pink clay, detoxifying charcoal powder, and balancing Indian cress extract.
If most hair products leave your scalp itchy, oily, or irritated, Christophe Robin’s all-natural sea salt scalp scrub has your name all over it. The hero ingredient in this formula is—you guessed it—sea salt, which gently exfoliates and cleanses your scalp and hair, and it's also spiked with sweet almond oil to help hydrate your curls too.
Every time you step outside, pollution in the form of smoke, smog, and particulate matter (little microscopic pieces of dirt) latch on to your hair strands and make your curls look dull. To the rescue: this clarifying shampoo that's specially formulated to remove stubborn build-up from pollution as you wash.