Sulfates – a small molecule with a big reputation. Easily one of the largest consumer movements of the past decade - the desire to remove sulfates from our beauty routines has led to both behemoth and bespoke brands all opting to meet our demands with sulfate-free offerings.
What’s the jig? Are sulfates as bad they say or is it hype?
Urban Myths have linked sulfates to skin irritation and cancer. It’s true that daily use of products containing sulfates can cause skin irritation and sensitivity, but the theory that sulfates are agents in causing cancer has been debunked many times over in scientific studies and sits squarely in the category of myth.
The purpose of sulfates in your shampoo is to create a lathering effect to carry away oil and dirt from your hair and scalp. They are REALLY, REALLY, good at this job, almost too good.
Why the bad rep?
While sulfates effectively cleanse the dirt and excess oil from your hair and scalp they can also strip away your natural oils leaving your scalp unprotected, out of balance and dry.
By raising the pH level of your scalp, which is usually slightly acidic, sulfates can kill off your skin’s natural flora and open the gate for inflammation, itchiness, and other more serious conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
When sulfates make contact with your hair, they create a negative electrical charge and an increase of friction, making your hair more frizzy and dry by inducing static, leaching moisture and roughing up your cuticle.
Occasional use of skin and hair care products containing sulfates is pretty unlikely to have any adverse effect so there is a grain of truth to the idea that the sulfate-free movement is the brainchild of someone, somewhere, sitting behind a desk in a marketing department.
A quality sulfate-free shampoo will clean your hair just as effectively as those that contain sulfates, and at the same time maintain the natural oils and acid mantle of your scalp, ultimately leading to healthier hair with better natural protection.
For scientists tasked with creating sulfate-free shampoos, the formulation has gotten a whole lot more complex. Glucosides have become a hot ticket replacement for sulfates and so have isethionates, they are more gentle and don’t have the same stripping effect on the skin or scalp’s natural barrier.
Sulfate-free shampoos can take a bit of getting used to. They might take a bit longer to foam up in the shower and they need a little more rinsing than their sulfate inclusive counterparts. Your hair and scalp might also need a grace period to come up to speed and re-balance itself if it has been accustomed to a regular stripping with a sulfate shampoo.
Happy hair washing everybody