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What are the Hair Effects of Sulfates? According to experts, Here’s What You Need to Know

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I’m not going to lie, I don’t believe that I knew much about sulfates until after college. For the first half of my life, I used any shampoo that smelled good or was cheap at the drugstore. I have never thought of sulfates or wondered if they were bad for hair. Oh, how times have changed. My bathtub is now stocked with a multitude of shampoos and conditioners. I have a volumizing shampoo to blow-dry my hair, a shampoo that cleans my hair, and a shampoo that moisturizes my hair when it feels dry.

Although most shampoos these days don’t contain sulfates I do still use a sulfate based shampoo from the time I wash my hair. While I don’t recommend that you use it, I will give you the expert-backed information that you need to make that choice.

Why are some shampoos sulfated?

Nick Dindio, cosmetic chemist, clarifies that when we refer to sulfates in the context of shampoos, we mean sulfated detergents. The most common are sodium lauryl (SLS), sodium leuryl (SLES), ammonium laureth (sulfate), ammonium laureth (sulfate), ammonium laureth (sulfate), and sodium coco-sulfate. Dindio says that all ingredients are surfactants and do a great job. He also explains that surfactants contain a portion of water-soluble (sulfate) and a portion of oil-soluble (“lauryl, laureth or coco”), so they can “enclose oily and dirt particles to wash them down the drain.”

We love some favorite sulfate free shampoos for every hair type:

  • Briogeo Fragrance-Free Shampoo
  • Pattern Hydration Shampoo
  • Olaplex No. 4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo
  • Pantene Gold Series Deep Hydrating Co-Wash

They are incredibly effective at removing all dirt, grime and product buildup from hair. But sometimes they can be too good. Mona Gohara MD, a board-certified dermatologist, has previously revealed that you could find the same surfactants even in dish soap. My friends, this is where the problem lies for your hair.

Is it really worth the extra effort to use sulfate-free shampoos?

Yes, sulfate free shampoos are better for certain hair types. But that doesn’t mean that sulfate-filled shampoos can be harmful. Dindio says that all detergents work the same way. They just have different properties like foam quality, volume and cleaning power. Dindio says that although sulfates aren’t necessarily bad, they can be very aggressive – just like all detergents – if used at too high a level.

SLS, SLES and ammonium luryl sulfate are the most important sulfates you should be looking out for. However, it is not as easy to find sulfate free detergents because there are so many. To determine which surfactants I prefer, I refer to a surfactants listing before purchasing shampoo.

Are Hair Supplements Effective?

If any of the ingredients on the harsh list (i.e., the sulfates), If you have dry, curly or damaged hair, I recommend skipping this product and opting for sulfate free formulas. However, hairdresser Monae Everett told Cosmo that sulfates and harsher detergents may be OK for oily hair. If you find sulfates to be too harsh on your hair, it might not be the best shampoo. A sulfate-free alternative could be better.

Are sulfates able to bleach hair?

Meri-Kate O’Connor, a hair colorist, says that sulfates can sometimes remove color pigments or chemical treatments (such as keratin treatment) faster than you would like. Dindio argues that the concentration of the detergent is more important than the actual detergent. However, it’s a good idea to choose a sulfate free formula for color-treated hair to ensure safety.

Is sulfate-free shampoo good enough for fine hair?

The thing about sulfate free shampoos is that they are all very different. I have used sulfate free shampoos that were basically co-washes, which was way too heavy for my fine hair. However, I have also tried sulfate free shampoos that were surprisingly strong and sudsy. This is why I double-check every shampoo’s ingredients with a detergents list.

Are you really going to need a clarifying shampoo?

You should make sure you have a clarifying shampoo that contains sulfates if your hair is particularly dirty or has a lot of silicone product buildup. Because of their ability to clean hair deeply, Meri Kate O’Connor, hairdresser, suggests that sulfates are a good choice for someone oily or who is sensitive to dirt and dust. A clarifying shampoo is not necessary if you don’t have to wash your hair every day.

Personally, I love to use sulfates sometimes for stripping off all the oil and grease that weighs down my fine roots. This is also true for Cosmo’s deputy beauty director Chloe Metzger who has fine, curly hair that is prone to buildup. O’Connor does not recommend sulfates for hair that is fragile or fine. They can dry hair even more. It’s not about your hair. O’Connor says that people with scalp conditions like dermatitis, eczema or dermatitis should also avoid sulfates because they can cause more irritation to the skin.

Are all clarifying shampoos sulfates-free?

Good question! Many clarifying shampoos do contain sulfates, but not all. Sulfates are known for giving the most thorough cleanse. This is great for removing oil and dirt from hair. However, there are many sulfate free options. Dindio states that sulfate-free shampoos are a great option. Below are some of our favorites.

Four clarifying shampoos that are sulfate free
  • OUAI Detox Shampoo
  • Adwoa Beauty Blue Tansy Clearing Gel Shampoo
  • Love Beauty and Planet Delightful Detox Sulfate Free Shampoo
  • Kinky Curly Natural Moisturizing Shampoo

The last word

Sulfates may be more effective at cleaning, but sulfate free formulas might work better for you. My hair is straight and flat. I don’t color my hair. It gets greasy quickly so I use dry shampoos and volumizing products. A sulfate-filled shampoo is the best way to get my hair back on track.

A milder shampoo will be more effective if your hair is dry, damaged, dry, or color-treated. Dindio explained that it is more about the concentrations of the sulfates rather than the actual sulfates. However, there are many options available (see above), so you don’t necessarily have to use them if you don’t want to.

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