To be honest, clarifying is not something I considered important when I first started following the curly girl method. I think it was just a combination of the fact that I used all high quality products and didn't have hard water so I felt like I didn't need it.
But I have since learned that there are definitely some scenarios where you absolutely need to clarify and you can do it safely while following the curly girl method.
Reviewed by Laurie Cain, Curl Specialist and Hair Stylist.
What is clarifying?
Clarifying means doing a wash that removes buildup from your hair and scalp.
Buildup comes from minerals in hard water, products, specific ingredients that are low quality or non water-soluble, and your natural oils.
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How to tell if you need to clarify
There are usually a few signs your hair is in need of a clarifying wash.
You can be proactive and clarify regularly to avoid reaching this point or play it a little more dangerously and wait until you see one of the following signs:
- hair looks dull
- hair is weighed down
- hair is suddenly not looking “right”/ products not working anymore
- hair feels “producty” even after washing
- hair looks dirty when it is clean
- oily roots sooner than before
- itchy or flaky scalp
- stringy hair
- more frizz
- curls falling flat and not holding their shape
- if you just feel like your hair is acting different
I always say, if your hair is suddenly not cooperating and you haven't changed anything, CLARIFY first, then DEEP CONDITION, and do a PROTEIN TREATMENT only if the first 2 didn't work.
Usually, a simple clarifying wash will revive your curls if they have any buildup.
If the problem was moisture then the deep condition would help, and if it was lack of protein then your protein treatment would help. This is like a curly girl reset.
Why you have buildup
This is often the source of frustration and controversy in the curly girl world.
Buildup is caused by many ingredients in hair products, hard water, and chlorine or salt water in pools. Over time, these sit on your hair and scalp, coating it and causing unwanted effects like dullness.
Buildup is inevitable! It will happen to everyone at some point. Even if you are a water only washer.
If you have hard water, you can do an apple cider vinegar rinse to help dissolve the minerals but you will still need to use a chelating clarifying shampoo.
Curl specialist and hairstylist Laurie Cain actually does not recommend ACV rinses for this purpose but acknowledges that they do remove some mineral buildup.
According to her, “It [ACV rinse] may help if used very regularly, but generally speaking, it won't necessarily remove mineral buildup and I discourage it being used for this purpose, unless used at a higher concentration or for minimal routine use.”
To do an ACV rinse, dilute a few tablespoons of ACV into water and pour over your hair. When you pour it over your hair depends on your porosity.
ACV is an acid, so it will close the hair shaft.
If you do it before conditioning and you have medium or low porosity, you will significantly reduce the amount of moisture your hair will absorb.
So if you’re medium or low porosity, you want to do it after conditioning so you don’t risk closing a dry shaft, as that can lead to over dryness and keep that cycle of over greasiness going.
If you’re high porosity and you absorb too much moisture, an ACV rinse before conditioning may be helpful. Not all high porosity have that issue though, so if you’re not constantly over moisturized or over dried due to your porosity, this isn’t necessarily what you need.
More often it is ingredients causing buildup.
If you follow the curly girl method, then your products should contain water soluble ingredients.
But sometimes there are ingredients in these products that are not of great quality and start to build up over time. And even your own oils build up, especially if you strictly cowash.
Some examples of curly girl approved lines that are known to cause buildup are Shea Moisture, NYM, Cantu, and LA Looks.
Common ingredients that cause buildup are:
- heavy oils
If you're using products with these kinds of ingredients then expect to have to clarify more often.
How to clarify curly and wavy hair
First, I want to point out that the only way to really clarify is by using a shampoo with the ingredient olefin sulfonate or a sulfate, but remember that sulfates are not curly girl approved.
So no, apple cider vinegar is not clarifying. As mentioned above, it only works to balance pH and helps with hard water.
And many of the curly girl approved shampoos that are labeled as clarifying are not either. So go check your bottle and see if it has a sulfate or olefin sulfonate as an ingredient.
Some clean curly girl approved clarifying shampoos:
- Max Green Alchemy Scalp Rescue shampoo
- Kinky Curly Come Clean clarifying shampoo
- Mop Top Gentle clarifying shampoo
- Mop Top Detox clarifying shampoo
- Inahsi Naturals clarifying shampoo
- Trader Joe's Tea Tree Tingle Shampoo
- Max Green Alchemy Scalp Rescue Shampoo
- Briogeo Curl Charisma Shampoo
- Briogeo Blossom and Bloom Shampoo
- Briogeo Don’t Despair Repair Super Moisture Shampoo
Scalp buildup will present as itching, flaking, and film over the scalp area.
If you have scalp buildup, then make sure to spend a lot of time massaging the clarifying shampoo really well into your scalp and rinse well.
If that is not enough then you can try a bentonite clay mask, apple cider vinegar rinse, or a sugar scrub.
A bentonite clay mask on your scalp will work to remove buildup from just the scalp area. Mix 1 tablespoon of bentonite clay with either water or vinegar to form a paste, then apply to your scalp with damp hair. Cover it with a cap to prevent it from drying out or spray your scalp every few minutes to prevent it from completely drying. Wait about 30 minutes then wash and style as usual.
An apple cider vinegar rinse as outlined above will also help balance your scalp. ACV can help with itching and flaking, and I do this regularly to help my scalp and deal with the hard water.
Also, adding a little brown sugar to your shampoo helps if you have scalp issues. You can read more about scalp health and remedies in this post.
If you have hard water you will have more buildup than others.
Hard water contains high mineral content and builds up on your hair.
Regular clarifying shampoos do not remove this so you need a chelating shampoo. Luckily, there are some clarifying shampoos that are also chelating.
The ingredients that make a shampoo chelating include EDTA, phytic acid, sodium phytate, oxalic acid, and plyphosphates.
I recommend Ion Clarifying shampoo which is not CG approved because it has a sulfate, but since you'll only use this about once a month it's not a big deal and it actually helps keep your hair balanced and healthy.
If you prefer something CG approved, Cain recommends the Hard Water Remedy packet from Malibu C for a one time chelating cleanse. She does not recommend that it be used regularly. “It's a one and done if you maintain the removal of buildup. It is highly effective as a chelator and clarifier.”
So you use the packet once, then maintain with the Malibu Hard Water Wellness shampoo on a monthly basis. This shampoo is also chelating and has olefin sulfonate to remove buildup, it's just a milder version and better suited for maintenance.
If you're in the U.S., you can check if you have hard water using this map. A shower filter or water softener can help reduce the mineral content in your water which will help a lot with buildup.
How often to clarify
You should be clarifying at least once every 8 weeks, more often if needed.
But be careful not to clarify too often. You shouldn't have to clarify every week. If you do then reassess your products because that is too much buildup too quickly.
As you start to notice the signs of buildup, you can add in scalp masks, ACV rinses, and clarifying shampoo as needed.
Sometimes I do an ACV rinse and can go another 2 weeks before I need to clarify. Other times I have to clarify every 2 weeks.
I recommend you keep track of your routine, and this curl tracker is perfect for this! Keeping a record helps you maintain a balanced routine and prevent some problems.
And don't forget to deep condition after clarifying!
Clarifying and Color Treated Hair
For color-treated hair, you can clarify with the Malibu C hard Water Wellness Shampoo.
Cain does not recommend ANY clarifying or chelating immediately following color, but does recommend and strongly suggest it be used prior to coloring. “The intense treatments can and will cause the color to fade, so I recommend them prior to a color service.”
She suggests that you wait at least one week after coloring, depending on how frequently you shampoo and the strength of the cleanser. If you shampoo only 1 time per week then wait 2 weeks. “I am comfortable recommending the Malibu C Hard Water Wellness Cleanser as often as weekly (depending on number of shampoos done per week) in areas that experience heavy mineral buildup.”
Highlights can handle a bit more than color, and the wellness shampoo will help with brassiness caused by mineral build up.
Also know that ACV can remove/fade color from the strand, depending on frequency and dilution. So if you color your hair, I'd probably just stay away from ACV rinses to be safe.
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