You probably check the nutrition labels of the foods you buy, but it’s probably not often that you scan the back of your shampoo and conditioner bottles to read the ingredients list. Oftentimes, we remain loyal to haircare brands that we’ve been using for years and don’t think twice about what’s actually lurking in those yummy-smelling shampoos and treatments (not to mention how the ingredients actually affect our hair).
Sulfates are chemicals commonly used in shampoos and conditioners. You might have heard people preaching about the negative effects of sulfate in haircare products, and it might seem like just another all natural, granola-esque beauty fad, but the benefits of going sulfate-free are rooted in science. So we broke it down to tell you everything you need to know about sulfate and what switching to a sulfate-free haircare routine can do for your hair.
What are sulfates, and why can they be harmful to some people?
Sulfates are most commonly disguised in your shampoo as either sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate. According to the Environmental Working Group, an online resource that ranks body care products and ingredients based on their safety, sulfates have an overall low safety hazard when used in small amounts. But over time, side effects of heavy sulfate usage can include skin, eye and lung irritation.
“Sulfates, particularly sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), are known skin irritants,” says Abi Weeds, co-founder of the organic cosmetic and haircare company Odylique. “SLS has been identified as an irritant in ‘leave-on cosmetics’ at anything more than 1 percent concentration.”
Studies have shown that small amounts of sulfates in haircare products are not dangerous to your health—but swapping out your normal hair products with sulfate-free versions can improve the way your hair looks and feels. Here’s what you’ll notice by making the change.
1. You’ll tame the frizz and embrace your waves
If you have naturally curly or wavy hair, you might want to consider breaking up with your hair products that contain sulfates. Weeds says that shampoos made with sulfates are more likely to cause hair follicles to lift, which causes frizz.
“Switching to well-formulated sulfate-free shampoos can thus encourage scalp health, smooth the follicles and promote shine,” says Weeds. “Shampoos labeled sulfate- or SLS-free generally have less harsh detergents as well as a higher level of naturally nourishing botanical ingredients.”
The good news is that you can test the waters with sulfate-free products without breaking the bank. Try OGX Moroccan Argan Oil Shampoo ($5.49 at Target) or Aveeno Active Naturals Pure Renewal Shampoo ($5.99 at Target).
Sulfate-free shampoo is milder than regular cleansers, which is why it works better with naturally curly hair. You’ll find that sulfate-free products don’t get as lathery and bubbly as typical shampoos and conditioners, but your curls will look and feel bouncier and healthier.
2. Your hair treatments will last longer
If you’ve ever had your hair permanently treated or straightened, sulfate-free products can keep your hair looking and feeling its best long after the treatment. This can save you time and money in the long-run by preserving and maintaining what the treatments did to your hair.
Weeds recommends looking for shampoos that are not only sulfate-free, but that contain ingredients like herbal extracts, which promote healthy-looking hair. “Rosemary, nettle, horsetail and chamomile, which are used in our Odylique shampoos, are great for the hair,” she says. “With all the botanicals, look for the position on the ingredients list. The higher up they are, the better—as it means there’s more of them.”
Sara Zaghi, a junior at UCLA, says she started using sulfate-free shampoo after getting her first Brazilian blowout treatment and has noticed a positive difference in the way her hair looks and feels. Her favorite pick is Kiehl’s Smoothing Oil-Infused Shampoo ($7 to $18 at Nordstrom).
“I love the smell, and my hair is always so soft after I use it,” she says. “My Brazilian blowout also lasts longer when I use it compared to other shampoos.”
Maybe you just got your first keratin treatment and want the silky smoothness to last, or perhaps you’re simply looking to strengthen your damaged hair. Whatever the reason, saying goodbye to sulfate can save you a ton of time and money in the long run.
3. Dyed hair will stay vibrant longer
Whether you’re rocking highlights or a full head of rainbow dye, sulfate-free products do a better job at keeping your color from fading compared with regular shampoos and conditioners.
Weeds says that although going sulfate-free can provide many benefits for people with dyed hair, not all sulfate-free shampoos are created equal. “There are several other attributes of a really good shampoo,” she says. “‘Sulfate Free’ may still mean harsh preservatives, fragrance and other potential irritants. It’s a matter of assessing the ingredients left in as well as what has been taken out. We use beauty superhero coconut oil in Odylique shampoos because it naturally conditions the scalp and is one of the few oils that can penetrate the hair and promote healthy-looking locks.”
Sulfates are used in shampoos because they are really strong detergents (just a fancy word for cleanser), but they can sometimes be too harsh, especially for hair that’s been dyed. Sulfate-free shampoo is a better option for people who have colored hair because it’s gentler and won’t strip the hair of color or cause damage.
4. Your skin will also benefit
Sulfate-free hair products are not just gentler on your scalp—but your skin may also benefit from the milder formula. We don’t always remember that when we lather up in the shower, whatever we use in our hair is also making its way to our face, neck and shoulders—and depending on the ingredients—this can be harmful to our skin. According to a 2014 report from the American Academy of Dermatology, shampoos with sulfates can pose issues for people who have sensitive skin issues such as eczema.
Weeds recommends switching to a sulfate-free haircare routine “particularly if you have scalp sensitivity or a skin condition like eczema, psoriasis or are prone to dryness. The skin on our scalp is very sensitive, and on average, 40 percent of people have scalp sensitivity at some point.”
Since sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners are more mild than typical products containing SLS, they’re less likely to irritate already-sensitive skin.
Switching from your regular hair products to a sulfate-free routine is a small change that can make your hair healthier, help maintain permanent treatments and save your skin and scalp from irritation. So, the next time you’re scanning the shampoo aisle, keep your eyes peeled for sulfate. Your hair will thank you!
Follow Darcy on Twitter.