If you pay attention to shampoo ads or pick up an occasional women’s magazine, you might notice much hype surrounding sulfate-free shampoo. Some say sulfate-free shampoo will protect your hair and more. Others say it’s not necessary. With the different opinions available, what is the truth behind sulfates and sulfate-free shampoo?
What Are Sulfates?
A sulfate is a salt formed when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical. Some commonly used sulfates include sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). Shampoo and soap manufacturers use sulfates to give you that thick, luxurious lather most people associate with clean hair.
Sometimes sulfates are made from petroleum products, but sometimes they are made from plant-based sources, such as coconut or palm oil.
Why Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo so Popular?
Despite the fact that the majority of shampoos on the market contain sulfates, many salons recommend sulfate-free shampoos to their clientele because sulfates reportedly cause frizziness, dry hair, scalp irritation, and acne. Sulfates can also fade colored hair. Some people even claim that sulfates cause hair loss. Because sulfates are often made from petroleum products, people are wary of adding additional chemicals where none are needed. Some argue that sulfates cause cancer, fertility issues, and development issues.
Are Sulfates Safe?
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For most people, sulfates are safe, at least in the amounts found in shampoo and other items such as toothpaste and bath bombs. While there are reports that sulfates may cause cancer and fertility issues, studies on beagle dogs show no carcinogenic effects. They even tested with large amounts of sulfates and found no effects on fertility or development.
Sulfates can irritate skin and particularly the eyes, so if you have sensitive skin, or if you have young children, avoiding sulfates might be a good idea. If you do experience irritation, rinse immediately. Surprisingly, even most baby shampoos contain sulfates.
Household cleaning products often use higher levels of sulfates. Scientists recommend that you only use them in well-ventilated rooms, or you could suffer from breathing problems. Some argue that because cleaning products use sulfates, even heavy-duty grease removers, sulfates can’t possibly be safe for personal use. While that argument does make sense on one level, cleaning agents have much higher concentrations of sulfates than shampoos and skin soaps do.
Sulfates and Hair Loss
Some people point their fingers at the sulfates in their shampoo after experiencing unexpected hair loss. Not surprisingly, it is possible. Sulfates can dry your hair and your scalp. Dry hair can break, giving the illusion of hair loss, and scalp irritation might cause hair loss in some people. If your scalp becomes irritated, and your hair turns dry, try switching to shampoo without sulfates.
Do Sulfate-Free Shampoos Cause Hair Loss?
Rumors surrounding one sulfate-free shampoo, called Wen, landed it in the middle of a class action lawsuit. WEN haircare isn’t really a type of shampoo as much as it is a cleansing conditioner. However, there is no evidence that WEN’s sulfate-free formula caused the alleged hair loss.
If you decide to avoid sulfates, your hair should be safe. In fact, many people feel using sulfate-free products is the best way to protect themselves from hair loss. If you do experience hair loss with a sulfate-free shampoo, let us know in the comments.
Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo Worth the Hype?
While sulfate-free products may benefit some who have dry skin and hair, and in particular eczema, there’s little evidence that sulfate-free shampoo is worth the hype. There are some salon treatments, such as keratin straightening, that might not last if the client uses sulfate-free shampoo. Even Aveda, a hair care line known for being environmentally friendly, doubts some of the negative press around sulfates. They have four lines of sulfate-free shampoos, but they don’t bother advertising them that way. Pat Peterson, Aveda’s vice president for product development, said:
“We don’t call out, ‘Ohhh, sulfate-free ’ because when we look at the benefits that are being proclaimed for sulfate-free , the connection with dry hair, the connection with color stripping, we don’t find that to be something connected to sulfate or nonsulfates. You can’t pinpoint one ingredient that’s doing good or bad in your shampoo. It doesn’t make sense.”
One reason they downplay sulfates is that advertising a sulfate-free line could dwarf their other lines.
Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo Right for You?
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Some argue that some shampoos advertised as sulfate-free may not be sulfate-free at all. Sulfate is what gives shampoo its rich suds. If your shampoo has suds, according to people like Devachan founder Lorraine Massey, who has long argued against sulfates, it has sulfates. Shampoo companies such as L’Oreal and Pureology claim to have developed high-sudsing formulas with no sulfates.
While there are few downsides to a sulfate-free shampoo, they don’t clean as well as shampoos with sulfates. If you have oily hair, or you use many hair products, you might opt for a product that contains sulfates.
Sulfate-free advocates and many companies that make sulfate-free shampoo argue that sulfates can fade colored hair. However, there is no consensus on that. Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist for Alberto Culver, the company that makes Tresemmé hair products, says that the very act of getting your hair wet will make your hair swell and cause the color to leak out. He says that with or without sulfates, it doesn’t make much of a difference. It may be worth noting that Alberto Culver does not feature an alternative without sulfates.
When You Want to Use Sulfates
Sulfates are inexpensive, which tends to mean that sulfate-free shampoos are more expensive than those that contain sulfates. For some people this is is enough for them to stick with sulfates. If you have fine or oily hair, you probably want the oil-stripping qualities that a sulfate shampoo will offer. If you desire more volume in your hair, sulfates will eliminate the grease that leaves your hair flat.
What to Look for When Buying Shampoo
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When it comes to sulfates, there is a middle ground. Ingredient labels list sulfates as cosmetic ingredients, just as food labels do, in their order of concentration. Look for formulas that list sulfates toward the end. If you want to avoid sulfates, look for shampoos that contain one of these coconut or fruit-based ingredients:
- Lauryl glucoside
- Coco glucoside
- Sodium cocoamphoacetate
- Decyl glucoside
- Caprylyl capryl glucoside
- Sodium cocoyl glutamate
- Disodium cocoyl glutamate
- Sodium methyl oleoyl taurate
- Sodium lauroyl lactylate
- Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate
- Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate
- Sodium cocoyl isethionate
- Ammonium cocoyl isethionate
- Sodium lauryl glucose carboxylate
Another very common, but also somewhat harsh non-sulfate ingredient is Cocamidopropyl betaine. Be wary of it if you have dry hair or sensitive skin.
So, What’s the Verdict?
Increasingly, Americans are paying attention to what goes into, and on, their bodies. While there are no proven benefits to shampoos without sulfates, they can’t hurt, other than putting a dent in your wallet. Besides the fact that sulfate-free is naturally more expensive, there are very few drugstore brands that offer shampoos without sulfates,
There is no concrete evidence that sulfates cause cancer or reproductive issues. If sulfates are a concern, though, avoiding house cleaning products containing sulfates will have a more significant effect.
You can rest assured that sulfate-free shampoos will not cause hair loss. Shampoos with sulfate might, however.
Always check ingredients. Sulfates can hide, and some companies, like Aveda, secretly omit sulfates from their shampoos.
Featured Image: CC-0 By Abiris Via Pixabay.