Sulfates in shampoos are kind of like the hydrogenated oils of the hair care world: we know we should avoid them, even if we’re not entirely sure what the heck they are.
In short, sulfates are complicated detergents best known as (but not always) sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate. Like any other detergent, sulfates help to clean. If, like me, you have a toddler who finds it hilarious to stick her peanut-butter-coated fingers in your hair, they’re a guaranteed way to get your hair from gross to gorgeous–or at least, not gross.
But, of course, they’re not the only way. And there may be good reason to avoid sulfates in shampoos.
The main reason many people avoid sulfates is that quite simply, they can dry out your hair faster. (It’s part of the reason your conditioner goes twice as fast as your shampoo—you’re going to be battling dry hair the more it’s exposed to harsh detergents.) You’re likely to suffer from frizziness, split ends, and generally more bad hair days when your hair is dry and damaged.
Likewise, color-treated hair suffers from sulfates exposure as well—it can strip your color requiring more frequent coloring sessions, which also dries out your hair and digs into your constant need for conditioner.
If you’re already battling a sensitive scalp or dandruff conditions, sulfates can also exacerbate those situations, causing dry, and even painful scalp flaking and irritation.
And, of course, while sulfates can be derived from natural ingredients like coconut, it’s kind of the same as those hydrogenated oils that come from recognizable ingredients as well. Only thing is, they’ve undergone chemical alterations that pretty much negate the naturalness of the original ingredient. So, if you’re a natural beauty junkie, you may want to steer clear of sulfates just because of their inherent unnaturalness.
The good news is the Environmental Working Group gives sulfates a low-risk rating (1-2), and they’re not linked to any known cancer risk like some ingredients still found in personal care products.
So, now you’re off sulfates and looking for sulfate-free shampoos to wash your tresses with. But what are those, exactly?
Most likely you’ll see more mild detergents used that don’t lather as richly as sulfate shampoos. And the names might be tricky, too, like sodium lauryl sulfoacetate, which actually sounds a lot like the sulfates you’re looking to avoid but is not the same. But if you’re willing to sacrifice a few suds for more natural, healthy hair, then sulfate-free products may just be the way to go. (And you’ll still probably need to double-up on conditioner anyway because no matter what, they never match up.)