Keeping it Clean: The Lowdown on Sulfates

I came across a very interesting article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune yesterday about controversial, yet mainstream, shampoo ingredients: sufates.  Ok, fine my Nana hipped me to it (gotta give credit where credit is due!), but the article (after the jump) brings up some issues that I think EVERYONE, regardless of hair texture or style, should be aware of.  Sulfates are “surfectants” – or compounds used in cosmetics as cleansers.  Sodium Laureth Sulfate is perhaps the strongest sibling in the sulfate family and has properties that lend itself as a “degreaser.”  Whether its your scalp or clothes or roasting pan, SLS is there to cut through oil and grease leaving whatever it is your washing squeaky clean!  Wait, did I just use hair, clothes, and scalp in the same sentence?  Sure did.  SLS is quite widely used in soaps, detergents, cleansers, and shampoos; the stuff that is used on your hair is the same stuff that you use on a Pyrex baking dish and the reason you wear rubber gloves when washing dished: it dries out your skin!

The truth is that SLS and other sulfates are most likely too harsh for cleansing your hair.  It can strip your hair of moisture and cause your color to fade more quickly.  There is a fine line between cleansing and drying.  The article below discusses how many people are finding that less frequent washing and/or washing with a sulfate-free shampoo can improve the overall condition of your scalp and hair.  Sure, sometimes you might need that heavy dose of cleansers after using a lot of product (no need to leave yourself with build-up!), but in general for daily use, you should cut out or at least minimize your usage of sulfates.  One key thing to remember is that just because it doesn’t lather doesn’t mean its not cleaning.  We’ve been conditioned (pardon the pun) to equate lather with cleanliness, but it’s really not the key to clean.

Some of my favorite sulfate-free shampoos and cleansers are:

  • Poo Bars!  I love these things, not only are they great for travel (no liquids!), I also get a TON of moisture.  My favorites come from Chagrin Valley and Skincare by Feleciai

So that’s it. An easy remedy to dryness (both in hair and skin) is to watch your products for sulfates!

Article after the jump!

Sulfate hair products have some critics in a lather

Natural shampoos without cheap detergents are a welcome relief to those complaining that harsh sulfates damage their hair.


Last update: October 24, 2010 – 2:34 PM

Only a few years ago, most consumers had no clue what sulfates were. Still don’t? Here’s a crib sheet: They are cheap lathering detergents long used in many shampoos (and household cleaners) that lately have been given a public flogging.

In May, on the “Today” show, Anthony Dickey, a hairstylist, suggested that traditional sulfate-rich shampoos can “give color a bad name” and create frizz.

“All shampoos should be sulfate-free,” he said.

“Everything should be,” replied Hoda Kotb, the co-host.

At websites such as, consumers fret that the harsh sulfates in shampoos, commonly listed on labels as sodium laureth sulfate and ammonium laureth sulfate, have left their finicky curls a dried-out, pouffy mess. At Ricky’s, a beauty supply chain in New York City, various companies front the no-sulfates badge, from TIGI Bed Head Superstar shampoo to Keratin Complex Color Care shampoo. L’Oreal Paris has hired actress Eva Longoria Parker to talk about how the chemicals have leached precious dye from her locks.

Since 2009, L’Oreal Paris has released two drugstore lines that boast prominently on the packaging of being “sulfate-free.” EverPure is being marketed to colored locks, EverStrong to anyone who wants gentle cleansing.

The brand’s commercial has taken the idea of troublesome sulfates into prime time: “Even after 32 shampoos, I love how my color stays pure,” Longoria Parker said. “How? New EverPure L’Oreal’s first shampoo free of harsh sulfates and salts.” She promised a “rich lather so pure it respects every strand.”

Call it a natural evolution

Sulfate-free formulations have long existed in the dusty aisles of health-food stores, but are only now making it into the mainstream.

“Touting sulfate-free is part of the whole evolution of the heightened awareness to natural products and their benefits,” said Karen Grant, vice president for beauty at the NPD Group, a market research firm.

The Just-Say-No-to-Sulfates movement has further caught fire among patrons of salon lines who liked results they saw from washing their hair less often and less vigorously. Two fan favorites are Pureology, which is under the L’Oreal umbrella, and DevaCurl from Devachan, the curly-hair-centric New York salons. Online, consumers trade lists of zero-sulfate shampoos that delivered for their dry, fragile or fine hair.

Recently, Lorraine Massey, a founder of Devachan and a longtime antisulfate evangelist, challenged women at to stop using traditional shampoos. (More than 150 responded, so far.)

“Sodium laurel sulfate is the archenemy of the universe,” she said without a hint of levity in an interview.

Devachan’s competitor Christo, a Greek hairstylist with a New York salon that specializes in curls, says he thinks there is little evidence that sulfates dry hair, and says stylists who believe this are brainwashed. Still, he also has come out with a sulfate-free shampoo for use after his in-salon keratin straightening treatment.

“Some chemicals in there don’t do well with sulfates,” he explained, adding that he had clients who used regular shampoo post-treatment calling back weeks later to say their straightening never took.

Some don’t blame shampoos

Not everyone, though, takes issue with sulfates. When it comes to color fading, Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist who used to work in product development for Alberto Culver, the maker of Tresemme hair care, fingers a more common culprit.

“Anytime you expose hair color to water, hair swells up and some color can leak out,” he said. “But the shampoo that you use is not really going to pull color out appreciably more than anything else.”

Aveda, the ecologically friendly professional line, offers four sulfate-free shampoos, including one, Scalp Benefits, introduced in 1996 — but has never labeled them as such.

“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,” said Pat Peterson, the vice president for product development of the Twin Cities-based company. “You can’t pinpoint one ingredient that’s doing good or bad in your shampoo. It doesn’t make sense.”

Romanowski said there’s a downside for mainstream cosmetics companies touting sulfate-free.

“If the rest of your entire line is based on sulfates, you’re essentially undercutting all your other products with this advertising,” he said.

Jennifer Disomma, the director for product development for L’Oreal Paris, said, “We do know sulfate-free shampoos are gentler on the hair fiber.”

Yet the company’s Vive Pro line has shampoos that list sodium laureth sulfate as the second ingredient — nine shampoos, in fact.

“Providing EverPure, EverStrong and Vive Pro shampoos gives the consumer choices that meet her needs,” Disomma said.

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  1. EXCELLENT post! I also don’t use anything with dimethicone in my natural hair, because it’s s form of rubber, and the only thing that permanently washes it out of your hair is a sulfate product. Sulfates are also polluting our rivers and groundwater making them a hazard to the environment as well.

    I’ve successfully rid our home of sulfates, so I KNOW it can be done. It just takes a little bit of thinking. Great tips!

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  3. Thanks for the post! I’m actually allergic to sulfa, so this was excellent information on non-sulfate products for me!

  4. good read, but i think you meant “surfactant” and not “surfectant”.

  5. Huh…I wonder if that is why the day after a good washing, I still have a ton of flakes coming from my scalp? I’m going to try the no-sulfates challenge to see if there is a difference.

  6. Excellent!! Thank you Kristi!

  7. I definitely noticed a difference in my hair when I stopped using sulfate shampoos. This is a great article. Thanks for posting!

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