Sulfate-free products are now seen as commonplace, but it isn' clear if this is simply a marketing tactic or if they are truly more effective. To understand whether we should be opting for sulfate-free products, let’s start with the basics. What are sulfates?

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Sulfates in beauty products: the basics

Sulfates are a type of salt that can be found in many cosmetics and cleaning products and are a type of surfactant that attracts both oil and water. They work to create a ‘foaming effect’ that makes shampoos and cleansers sudsy. They essentially make it easier for grime and dead skin cells to be removed from your skin and scalp and washed away with water.

There are three main types of Sulfates commonly found in beauty products, including sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), sodium lauryl sulfate (SLES), and ammonium laureth sulfate (ALS). They all differ in their functions and intensity, but in general, the "-eth" versions (laureth sulfate) are milder than the "-yl" version, and the ammonium version is milder than the sodium version.

So, what’s the problem with Sulfates?

There is no evidence that Sulfates can cause illness or negatively impact your health in any way, however research has shown that they can be harsh and can cause skin irritation. In the process of cleansing, they may strip the skin of its natural oils, leading to dryness. They could also contribute to making your hair drier and more brittle and can cause irritation to your scalp if it is sensitive.

When you might want to avoid Sulfates?

For most people, Sulfates are not a big deal, however some may really benefit from using Sulfate-free products, particularly when fighting dehydrated hair and skin. Sulfate-free cleansers help to maintain the natural oils on your scalp and hair, which can help them retain more moisture. Sulfates can be especially harsh on dyed or curly hair, potentially stripping color, and if you have sensitive skin or eczema, ditching Sulfates might help reduce irritation.

However, if your hair is oily or you have dandruff, sulfates can help by absorbing and getting rid of oils on your scalp, and some people simply prefer the feel of a sudsy shampoo. If you want to try a sulfate-free shampoo, go ahead, but if you're happy with your current shampoo, there's no need to switch.

Gentle alternatives to Sulfates

Sulfates are effective at cleansing the hair and scalp with minimal effort, but it is possible to cleanse without them. Cocobetaines are an alternative surfactant derived from coconut oil, and are slightly milder than Sulfates. Cocobetaines do not lather as much as sulfates, which can be beneficial for people with drier, curly hair.