The clean beauty movement has become a formidable force in the industry over the last decade. And it makes perfect sense as consumers like you are opening their eyes and making more conscious decisions to protect themselves and the planet. Since knowledge is the most powerful tool we can use to prevent harm, knowing what’s lurking in the products we use is a must. In this post, you’ll learn all about sulfates in shampoo so you can choose your hair care wisely and avoid unnecessary risks that can ravage your health.
Shampoo has gone through many changes over the years before becoming what it is today. From Indian soapnuts to bar soap shavings to powders, shampoo has existed in many different forms. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that liquid shampoo was developed, and this soon became the typical way people wash their hair.
However, shampoo's purpose has always remained the same: to clean your hair. And most shampoos do this job well. But how do they do it? They use surfactants, or detergents like those in soap, that make it easy to catch dirt and oil and send them on their way. They also give shampoos a thick, frothy lather that spreads effortlessly through your hair and feels oh-so-fancy on your fingertips.
The most commonly used surfactants in shampoo are known as sulfates. Common sulfates in shampoo include sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), and ammonium laureth sulfate (ALS). These ingredients are chemicals (some derived from petroleum) formed by combining sulfuric acid and other chemicals. You’ve probably heard of them, as people have become more conscious of their health and the environment, and the beauty industry shifts towards all-natural formulas.
But what has made us turn our backs on the sulfates of yesteryear? Are shampoos made with sulfates as terrible as their reputation suggests? What does the research show? The controversy over sulfates continues, but if you want to know more about why they’re getting the cold shoulder and why you should make the switch to all-natural sulfate-free shampoo, read on for the full scoop.
Are sulfates bad for your hair?
The short and long answer to this question is yes. It’s well known that sulfates effectively remove dirt and oil from your hair. The problem is that they overachieve this goal. They not only remove the oil you don’t want, but sulfates strip your hair of the natural oils that protect it from drying out and taking on the texture of straw. Regular use of shampoo containing sulfates leaves cuticles exposed to the elements. Your hair then becomes prone to breaking and splitting. Sulfate shampoo also causes hair color to fade and can dry out your scalp, causing itchiness or even dandruff.
Are sulfates bad for your health?
A fair bit of controversy swirls around this question. Many have accused sulfates of everything from causing hair loss, blindness, organ toxicity, and even cancer. According to this journal article, many of the claims are just misinterpretations of the research. But what should we believe?
The article states that while research shows sulfates are indeed irritants and can be toxic, the studies were either done on the single chemical alone, in higher than normal concentrations, or in laboratory settings and don’t apply to product use. However, toxicity studies done using shampoo and people are lacking, so it’s difficult to prove or disprove the harmful effects sulfates can have on humans. What we do know is that SLS is toxic to some degree, we just can’t be sure of how much it will harm us.
We also know from research that SLS can irritate skin and cause contact dermatitis. So it’s crucial to avoid sulfates in shampoo if you already have dermatitis, sensitive skin, acne, eczema, or any other skin condition because it’s likely to worsen it.
While research doesn’t support claims that sulfates themselves are carcinogens, a by-product made during the process of creating SLES from SLS, called 1, 4 dioxane, is classified as a possible carcinogen. Technically, this by-product is not an ingredient. However, products containing SLS or SLES are still potentially carcinogenic because cross-contamination can happen. And, sadly, companies aren’t required to rid their products of 1, 4 dioxane.
Another key thing to note is that manufacturers aren’t required to report the concentration of sulfates in their shampoo products, which can range from 10% to 25% on average.
Are sulfates bad for the environment?
Yes, sulfates are hazardous to the environment. Whatever we use in the shower washes down the drain and is released into the environment through the sewage system. Sulfates from shampoo ultimately end up in our waterways, polluting our oceans and local rivers. And according to research, sulfates are toxic to aquatic life and can significantly affect development in the early stages. Unfortunately, it’s easy to see how this is true because sulfates are also a popular ingredient in pesticides that are meant to kill insects and other pests.
Are sulfates harmful to other animals?
Besides harming aquatic life, another concern about sulfates is that they are often tested on animals. Many companies do this to determine how irritating their products might be to the lungs, skin, and eyes. While testing helps make consumers aware of the dangers of a company’s products, testing on animals is never ok.
What should you use instead of sulfate shampoos?
If you strive to live a genuinely healthy and sustainable life, sulfate-free shampoo is the best and only option for your hair. However, finding products that prioritize your health and the environment's well-being is not always easy. Most stores fill their shelves with shampoos that contain harsh synthetic sulfates. And sometimes, reading labels can leave you even more confused about what to buy. Even if a product claims to be sulfate-free, you should still research the ingredients to be sure it's safe.
Plant-based hair cleansing agents are a much kinder option than sulfates. A few to look for are sodium cocoamphoacetate, cocamidopropyl betaine (CAPB), and alkyl polyglucosides (APGs) like decyl polyglucose and lauryl polyglucose.
At Nurture My Body, we’re experts in all-natural, organic, wildcrafted ingredients that are not only safe but effective. Our sulfate-free line of shampoos will remove dirt and oil from your hair but without all the damage, health risks, and known hazards of harsh sulfates.
Our shampoos are made with gentler plant-based alternatives, such as decyl polyglucose and lauryl polyglucose. These milder cleaning agents are created by the reaction between glucose and natural fatty acids. They’re completely biodegradable and won’t cause pollution or harm to wildlife because they’re made from 100% natural sources.
How is sulfate-free different?
While you may have gotten used to the idea that a big, bubbly lather means deeper cleansing, this is a myth. In general, sulfate-free shampoos aren’t as frothy, but this doesn’t mean they’re not cleaning as well. You will still get clean hair going sulfate-free. You might also notice it's not as easy to spread the product into all of your hair’s nooks and crannies. So you’ll likely need to spend a minute or two longer dispersing it through your strands. The extra time spent is well worth it though.
At first, it might also seem like you aren’t getting that squeaky clean feeling you’re used to from sulfate shampoos. However, that squeaky clean feeling is a sign of over-cleansed hair that's been stripped of its oils. With sulfate-free shampoo, you'll maintain some of the natural oils you need to protect your hair from damage. And this is a good thing, especially if you style your hair with heat tools like blow dryers or irons.
It’s never been more important to look out for your health and make choices that minimize your health risks. We are bombarded by toxins every day, some that are obvious and some that aren’t so obvious. It might be more challenging to avoid the not-so-obvious dangers. But luckily, we can use what we know to help us make the healthiest decisions. Hopefully, this guide gives you the answers you’ve been looking for concerning sulfates in shampoo. We love helping you make smart decisions and being able to offer you solutions that will help you be the healthiest you can be.