Hydrothermal circulation at slow-spreading ridges is important for cooling the newly formed lithosphere, but the depth to which it occurs is uncertain. Magmas which stagnate and partially crystallize during their rise from the mantle provide a means to constrain the depth of circulation because assimilation of hydrothermal fluids or hydrothermally altered country rock will raise their chlorine (Cl) contents. Here we present Cl concentrations in combination with chemical thermobarometry data on glassy basaltic rocks and melt inclusions from the Southern Mid-Atlantic Ridge (SMAR; ~ 3 cm year−1 full spreading rate) and the Gakkel Ridge (max. 1.5 cm year−1 full spreading rate) in order to define the depth and extent of chlorine contamination. Basaltic glasses show Cl-contents ranging from ca. 50–430 ppm and ca. 40–700 ppm for the SMAR and Gakkel Ridge, respectively, whereas SMAR melt inclusions contain between 20 and 460 ppm Cl. Compared to elements of similar mantle incompatibility (e.g. K, Nb), Cl-excess (Cl/Nb or Cl/K higher than normal mantle values) of up to 250 ppm in glasses and melt inclusions are found in 75% of the samples from both ridges. Cl-excess is interpreted to indicate assimilation of hydrothermal brines (as opposed to bulk altered rock or seawater) based on the large range of Cl/K ratios in samples showing a limited spread in H2O contents. Resorption and disequilibrium textures of olivine, plagioclase and clinopyroxene phenocrysts and an abundance of xenocrysts and gabbroic fragments in the SMAR lavas suggest multiple generations of crystallization and assimilation of hydrothermally altered rocks that contain these brines. Calculated pressures of last equilibration based on the major element compositions of melts cannot provide reliable estimates of the depths at which this crystallization/assimilation occurred as the assimilation negates the assumption of crystallization under equilibrium conditions implicit in such calculations. Clinopyroxene–melt thermobarometry on rare clinopyroxene phenocrysts present in the SMAR magmas yield lower crustal crystallization/assimilation depths (10–13 km in the segment containing clinopyroxene). The Cl-excesses in SMAR melt inclusions indicate that assimilation occurred before crystallization, while also homogeneous Cl in melts from Gakkel Ridge indicate Cl addition during magma chamber processes. Combined, these observations imply that hydrothermal circulation reaches the lower crust at slow-spreading ridges, and thereby promotes cooling of the lower crust. The generally lower Cl-excess at slow-spreading ridges (compared to fast-spreading ridges) is probably related to them having few if any permanent magma chambers. Magmas therefore do not fractionate as extensively in the crust, providing less heat for assimilation (on average, slow-spreading ridge magmas have higher Mg#), and hydrothermal systems are ephemeral, leading to lower total degrees of crustal alteration and more variation in the amount of Cl contamination. Hydrothermal plumes and vent fields have samples in close vicinity that display Cl-excess, mostly of > 25 ppm, which thus can aid as a guide for the exploration of (active or extinct) hydrothermal vent fields on the axis.