Are Sulfates Really Bad For Your Hair?

Written by Ramona Sinha

Sulfates are common in almost all hair care products. You will commonly find sulfates in shampoos as they are the foaming agents that help cleanse your scalp and hair. Sulfates have been controversial for years. Even today, most people consider it bad for their skin and scalp and prefer “sulfate-free” products as they are thought to be gentler. However, have you ever thought about why sulfates are demonized in the beauty industry?

This also makes us wonder if it is possible to cleanse our hair and scalp without the suds. This article explores the reality of sulfates, their effects, and potential risks. Read on.

What Are Sulfates And What Do They Do?

Sulfates are cleansing agents or surfactants found in products like shampoos and detergents. When mixed with water, sulfates quickly form foams.

Surfactants like sulfates help reduce surface tension between your skin and the shampoo. This allows the active ingredients in the shampoo to do their work effectively. In other words, sulfates make your shampoo more effective.

All sulfates have different intensities and may or may not irritate the scalp. The most common sulfates used in hair care products are:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Ammonium Laureth Sulfate

The laureth sulfates are milder than the lauryl sulfates, and the ammonium sulfates are much gentler than their sodium counterparts.

The question is, are sulfates really bad for your scalp and hair? Let’s find out in the next section.

Are Sulfates Bad For Your Hair?

They are both good and bad for your hair, depending on your hair type, scalp condition, the concentration of sulfates, and the usage frequency.

Sulfates may damage your scalp and hair in the following circumstances:

  • Regular And Excessive Usage: Studies indicate that daily shampooing with products containing sodium dodecyl sulfate (another name of SLS) may cause protein (keratin) loss, leading to dryness and split ends (1).
  • Induce Contact Dermatitis: High concentration (3%) of sulfates, especially SLS, can cause moisture loss from the skin, leading to irritant contact dermatitis (2). Sulfates can irritate your scalp if you have conditions like erythema, eczema, and psoriasis.
  • May Cause Hair Loss: Sulfates are not directly linked to hair loss. However, it may irritate a sensitive scalp, cause protein loss, weaken the hair, and cause hair fall and loss.
  • Cause Dryness And Brittle Hair: Excessive use of products containing sulfates can strip the natural oils and make the hair dry, frizzy, and brittle. Among all hair types, natural hair is more vulnerable to sulfates.
  • May Strip Your Hair Color: If you have dyed hair, avoid sulfates as they can strip the hair color. We already have enough reasons to hate sulfates. However, some people with specific hair types may benefit from sulfates. For instance,
  • Sulfates Are Excellent Clarifying Agents: If you have an oily scalp and fine hair, a good clarifying shampoo with sulfates can efficiently provide thorough cleansing and wash out all dirt, grime, and oils. It removes product buildup to keep your scalp healthy.
  • Sulfates May Help If You Have Dandruff: The fungus Malassezia feeds on the excess sebum and lipids on your scalp. Using sulfates can help clean the oil, minimizing the effect of the fungus.

However, in both cases, moderation is key. Sulfate shampoos should be used not more than once or twice a week. However, it is also possible to clean your hair without sulfates.

Sulfate-Free Shampoos: Are They Better For Your Hair?

Yes, if you have a dry and sensitive scalp and natural, kinky, and damaged hair. Sulfate-free does not mean surfactant-free products. Non-sulfate shampoos usually contain non-ionic surfactants like coco glucoside (extracted from coconut oil and fruit sugars) and decyl glucoside. Both are ECOCERT approved and completely biodegradable.

A few sulfate-free shampoos may also contain lauryl glucoside and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate (a gentle anionic surfactant). These are great alternatives to SLS and SLES and suitable for sensitive skin. Other than these, sulfate-free shampoos contain hydrating ingredients and cleanse the scalp without irritating it or stripping the natural oils and keep the hair moisturized and soft.

However, with a sulfate-free shampoo, you may have to work hard and massage the scalp thoroughly to clean it. Naturally, derived surfactants are mild, often do not lather well, and are not as efficient as SLS. However, they are great for dry, damaged, and natural hair.

If you have fine hair and oily scalp, you may use shampoos with sulfates occasionally. If you want to go low-sulfate, switch to products with milder sulfates and go gentle with them. However, you should switch to natural options if your skin does not respond well to sulfates.

Who Should Avoid Sulfates?

Avoid using sulfates if:

  • You are allergic to them.
  • You have a sensitive scalp.
  • You have rosacea, eczema, contact dermatitis, and related skin issues.
  • You have natural (kinky and coily) hair.
  • Your hair is dry and damaged.
  • You have chemically processed and color-treated hair.
  • Your hair is frizzy.

When choosing a sulfate-free shampoo, keep the following things in mind.

How To Choose The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo

Look for the following surfactants before buying:

  • Coco glucoside
  • Decyl glucoside
  • Sodium cocoyl glutamate
  • Sodium cocoamphoacetate

Also, pick a product that does not contain:

  • Artificial fragrances
  • Artificial preservatives like paraben and PEG
  • Synthetic colors
  • Alcohol and propylene glycol
  • Essential oils

The Final Word

Sulfates are effective cleansing agents and help clarify your scalp. However, they can cause dryness, brittle hair, and breakage if used excessively and in high concentration. They may also aggravate scalp conditions and irritate a sensitive scalp. Hence, avoid using sulfates if you have any skin condition and if your skin does not respond well to sulfates. However, if you are using sulfate shampoos without any issues, there is no reason to discontinue them. Just ensure you are not overdoing it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do sulfate-free shampoos make hair greasy?

Yes, sulfate-free shampoos may make the hair greasy if not cleaned properly.

Are sulfate-free shampoos good for fine hair?

Yes, they are good for fine hair. However, fine hair may quickly turn greasy. You may need a clarifying shampoo once in two weeks to clear the buildup.


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