Sulfates: Good or Bad?

Sulfates and parabens are very much in the same boat right now in the beauty community: everyone says they’re bad for you, but they don’t have the evidence to back it up. In the same way all makeup seems to shout “paraben free” from the rooftops, a lot of hair care products are doing the same with the “sulfate free” marketing. But is it warranted? Are sulfates really that bad? As you might expect, there’s no simple yes or no answer to this question.

What’s a sulfate?

This is a complicated question. If you just google “sulfate” you’re going to get the scientific definition of sulfate, which isn’t very helpful. Sulfate just refers to an ion that is comprised of a sulphur atom and four oxygen atoms with a charge of -2. That being said, this is not what is meant by sulfate when it comes to beauty products. This may seem irrelevant, but trust me. It’ll be important later.

113px-sulfate-svg
A sulfate ion.

What most people mean when they talk about sulfates in beauty products are molecules called sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate. These are commonly used detergent surfactants found in shampoo, toothpaste, facial cleansers, and just about anything else you use that foams up. The big issue with detergents is that they can often cause irritation to skin and eyes. This can especially be a problem when it comes to hair care. When your scalp gets irritated it can get dry and may cause your hair to fall out at a higher rate. Your scalp drying out can also cause your scalp to overproduce oil and will make your hair get dirtier faster.

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Sulfates can also strip the color right out of your hair. Kind of. Essentially sulfates are too good at breaking down oils and it’ll break down the lipid barrier on the strands of your hair and allow the color molecules be removed more easily as a result. This is the big reason why hairdressers will often recommend sulfate free shampoos to those who have color treated hair.

So detergents are the devil, right?

Well… no. As much as it sounds like detergents are bad for you, they’re actually super useful for cleansing. Detergents help break down dirt and oils that build up in your scalp and gives you a nice, clean feeling. The issue comes when you use detergents that are too harsh or you use them too often.

If you want to cut detergents out of your life (at least as far as beauty products go) then go for it! It won’t cause any harm, but you do need to consider the consequences. One of the most common complaints I hear from people who go the “no poo” (no detergent) route is that their hair gets a buildup of oils and looks unclean all the time. This is probably because the “no poo” shampoo they use isn’t breaking down the natural oils their hair produces and is just leaving oil and dirt buildup on their scalp.

The same concept holds true for things like face washes. If you’re someone who has super oily skin, you pretty much need a detergent in your facial cleanser. Cream face washes are great if you’ve got super dry skin, but if you need to cleanse off some oil, they just won’t work. If you use a foaming face wash and it’s drying your skin out then you either have dry skin and need to switch to a cream cleanser or you’re washing your face too often and need to wash less often, or you need to alternate. I actually alternate my face washing, since I have Sahara-dry cheeks and and Exxon-Valdez spill on my nose. At night I’ll use a foaming cleanser to make sure all my makeup is off, and in the morning I’ll use a cream cleanser to remove any of the heavy night moisturizer I use. It sounds high maintenance, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

In the same way that I alternate face washes, a lot of people alternate shampoos. They’ll use a “no poo” shampoo most of the time while occasionally cleansing with a shampoo with a detergent in it. This helps mitigate the buildup issue people have when using a “no poo” method.

So those are my options? Dry scalp, excess buildup or using two shampoos?

Actually, there’s a happy medium which is the method I use! I only use one kind of shampoo, and it does foam, but it doesn’t contain SLS or SLES. And the best part is, it’s super affordable!

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Hell yeah. Kirkland Brand shampoo, available at Costco. I don’t have an exact price for you, but this giant thing of shampoo is in the $10 range at my Costco. I love that it comes with a pump so you can avoid using too much. You get a measured amount every time, and for me it’s the perfect amount.

How does it foam, you ask? It has detergents! Yep, this contains two detergents called lauroyl methyl isethionate and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate. Technically speaking, neither of these are sulfates since they don’t contain the sulfate ion we talked about at the beginning of this post. These are much less harsh than SLS and SLES and don’t cause as much irritation to your scalp. The molecules are also much larger, and there’s some evidence that the larger molecules can’t penetrate skin or hair and therefore can’t cause as much damage.

sli
Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate
dls
Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate

 

I find this works best for me. I don’t shampoo every day, so when I do I really want to remove any buildup from the days before. This lets me do that without drying my hair out too badly. This is a great affordable option if you want to avoid SLS and SLES but don’t want to spend a fortune on name brand hair care

What about sulfate free conditioners? 

This has always struck me as a little silly, because most conditioners aren’t going to have sulfates anyway. Conditioners aren’t meant to remove oil, they’re meant to add it and moisturize hair, so they wouldn’t have sulfates in the first place. My guess is that adding “sulfate free” to the bottle is just a marketing move to sell to those who don’t know what sulfates are, but want to avoid them for some reason.

But I heard that sulfates cause cancer!

Stop it. There’s no evidence to support that and is just part of the anti-science chemiKILLS nonsense that people spread on social media to scare people. I’m honestly done with long explanations of why these fear-mongering claims are wrong. 99% of the time folks who believe the anti-science rhetoric don’t care about my facts, so I won’t waste my breath. Just trust me on this one. Sulfates aren’t going to give you cancer. Get over it.


In short, there are perfectly good reasons to give up sulfates, but they’re not going to kill you if you use them! What you really need to do is look at your skin and hair and decide what works best for you. And don’t be afraid to experiment! If you try something new and it doesn’t work, discontinue use and try something else! That’s really the only way to know if something works for you. Also keep in mind that you can develop an allergy to SLS over time! It’s not fun, but you can alter your lifestyle to avoid it and still use an awesome range of beauty, skin care and hair care products!

What are your thoughts on sulfates? Do they work for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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