‘Sulfate-free’ seems to be an increasingly widespread term in the haircare world, and you’ll often find this claim on high-end and professional haircare brands, but what does it actually mean? We investigate – should we be avoiding sulfates, and if so, why?
What are sulfates?
Sulfates are essentially cleansing agents often found in household detergents and personal care products, the most popular of which are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).
Sulfates are made from sulfur-containing salts. They attract both water and oil, which is why they can effectively clean your hair (or skin, teeth, and clothes). As you wash your hair, sulfates grab onto all the dirt, oil, and product buildup in your strands and scalp, and then carry them out of your hair (and down the drain) when you rinse clean with water.
If you’ve noticed how some shampoos quickly lather into a foam when mixed with water, you have already seen sulfates at work. Sulfates are ‘surfactants’ which means that they lower the tension between the shampoo’s active ingredients and your scalp, facilitating the removal of dead skin cells and oils. Unfortunately, they work a little too well and can sometimes result in excess natural oils being stripped away during washing.
Are sulfates harmful to health?
The use of sulfates in detergents has been a cause for controversy in recent decades, with rumors that sulfates are potential carcinogens with frequent exposure. However, these rumors are not supported by scientific evidence, and there are no scientific studies that point to a link between sulfates and long-term harm or cancer.
So why would we avoid sulfates in haircare?
Although the use of sulfates has not been directly attributed to any particular health concerns, that doesn’t mean that they’re great for your hair either. Sulfates can still potentially cause damage your hair either by causing irritation or damaging your strands.
Hair is made up of protein, and when this protein is damaged, then your hair is weakened and can lose its natural luster. Unfortunately, the use of sulfates in haircare is associated with speeding up the removal of natural proteins which can leave you with breakage, split ends and generally dull, lifeless hair. In this same way, sulfates can strip your hair of colour and lead to premature colour fading. Those with dry or fine hair may be particularly susceptible to sulfate damage, as they naturally have fragile strands that suffer when too many natural oils are removed.
Sulfates are also known irritants and can cause contact dermatitis on your scalp as well as your back and shoulder if you have sensitive skin or rosacea in particular. In extreme cases, this may even lead to breakage and hair loss as a result of the irritation.
What are the alternatives?
If your regular supermarket shampoo is giving you the results you want without excessive dryness, colour fade or irritation, there is really no need to avoid sulfates. After all, it’s not only about whether sulfates are included in the formula, but also how they are worked in and at what ratio. If the balance is right, the other ingredients are high quality, and the shampoo is working for you, keep lathering away!
If you do want to reduce your exposure to sulfates there are many sulfate-free options available on the market that do a great job at gently cleansing your strands. Just remember that the sulfate-free experience may feel a little different! That luxurious foam you get with supermarket shampoos will be a thing of the past, but you have a shiny, healthy mane of hair to look forward to as a long-term reward.