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  5. What Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo & Why You Should Try It

The term sulfate-free shampoo has emerged as one of the hottest buzzwords in the haircare industry. While many experts may talk about its countless benefits and promote it, have you ever wondered what sulfate-free really means?

In this article, we discuss everything from the uses, benefits, and importance of sulfate-free shampoos. If you're curious about the sulfate-free movement or want to make the switch, read on to know more.

What Expert Says

“Sulphate-free shampoos can lather well, it all depends upon the composition and strength of surfactants/molecules used in the formulation."

Prutha Nawale, Product Development Executive, SkinKraft

What Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

Sulfate is a salt that forms when sulphuric acid reacts with other chemicals. Although various types of sulfates are used across industries, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are the two most commonly used sulfates in the haircare industry.

These compounds are produced from petroleum and plant sources such as palm and coconut oil.

What Do Sulfates Do To Your Hair?

Sulfates are considered to be good cleaning agents [1]. They are said to have deepest cleansing properties as compared to other cleansing ingredients. Sulfates belong to the anionic surfactants class of cleansers that clean away substances.

Most of the shampoos contain the two main types of sulfates. These sulfates create a lathering effect to remove oil and dirt from the hair. However, sulfates are aggressive detergents that may strip your hair and scalp of its natural moisture oils, thereby making your hair dry and brittle. Moreover, if you have sensitive scalp, sulfates can cause irritation, redness, dryness, etc.

Although sulfates may often be regarded as a staple ingredient in shampoos, they might not be suitable for everyone, especially if you shampoo your hair every day. Also, it can be damaging to certain hair types and may even cause skin irritation in some people.

Do Sulfate-Free Shampoos Lather Well?

Most of us think that a shampoo which creates more lather is better at cleansing hair. But, that might not be true. Certainly, if your shampoo makes a lather, it means it contains sulfates. Sulfate-free shampoos, comparatively, produce less lather during your hair wash.

Prutha Nawale, Product Development Executive at SkinKraft says, “Sulphate-free shampoos can lather well, it all depends upon the composition and strength of surfactants/molecules used in the formulation. Also, lather/foam is not directly associated with cleansing.”

Alternative surfactants contained in sulfate-free shampoos works great in removing dirt, grime, and oil from your hair scalp and hair without disturbing your scalp’s pH.

Benefits Of Sulfate-Free Shampoo

  • Retains moisture and repairs hair: If you have dyed or chemically-treated your hair, use a sulfate-free shampoo to breathe back life into your hair. Sulfate-free shampoos help retain the natural moisture of your hair, so that it does not lose its natural shine and softness.
  • Retains hair color: If you have colored hair, sulfate-free shampoos are a blessing. Unlike their counterparts, these are gentle and won't strip your hair of its color too fast.
  • Gentle on your hair: Sulfate-free shampoos not only contain moisturizing agents but also make your hair shinier. Using such a shampoo together with conditioner can add luster to your hair.
  • Reduces irritation: Sulfates are harsh on the scalp and may cause irritation and itchiness. Sulfate-free shampoos are much milder and can help you control scalp inflammation.
  • Tear-free: Sulfate-free shampoos are gentle for your eyes too. They don't produce an unpleasant burning experience if you get a bit of shampoo in your eye.
  • Safe for the environment: Since they are made mainly out of plant derivatives, sulfate-free shampoos are environmentally friendly.
  • Adds moisture to the hair: Sulfate-free shampoos work wonders on low porosity hair, which means that your hair finds it difficult to gain moisture. They help moisturize your hair and tame frizz.
  • Sulfate-free shampoos help you avoid long-term exposure to possibly toxic chemical compounds.

Who Should Use Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

People with dyed hair should avoid using sulfate shampoos as they are harsh cleansers that strip the color. Those with dry or frizzy hair too should opt for sulfate-free shampoos to maintain the natural oils on the scalp and hair, and retain moisture.

While sulfates effectively help remove oil and dirt, those with skin and scalp problems or sensitive skin should try to avoid sulfate shampoos to cut down on scalp irritation and other hair damages.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sulfate-free shampoo to people with rosacea [2], eczema, and contact dermatitis.

sulphate free shampoo

When Do You Need To Use Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

If you have pre-existing skin problems, sulfate shampoos can flare up the conditions. If you have eczema, contact dermatitis, rosacea, or other skin problems, a sulfate-free shampoo is a great alternative. This is because any potential lathering effects from that of sulfate shampoos could further irritate these skin conditions.

Woman holding hair

You may also develop allergic reactions if you’re sensitive to sulfate-based products. In that case, your doctor may also recommend you to use sulfate-free shampoo. Some of the obvious signs of sulfate allergy are:

  • Itchiness
  • Rashes
  • Redness
  • Hives
  • Inflammation

Important Note:

Allergic symptoms may occur due to other factors too. Speak to your doctor to evaluate if you have a sulfate allergy.

How Do You Know If Your Shampoo Is Sulfate-Free?

The best way to find out if you are using a paraben and sulfate-free shampoo is by reading the ingredient labels. Watch out for labels that have any one of these ingredients [3]:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
  • Parabens
  • Phthalates
  • Triethanolamine (TEA)

Look for plant-derived surfactants such as saponin, glucosides, sulfosuccinates, or glutamates. These natural surfactants effectively remove dirt, debris, grease from your hair and are gentler on skin.

Woman holding her hair with angry face

Are Sulfates Actually Bad For Your Hair?

Sulfates were once believed to be carcinogenic, but there is not enough evidence to prove this yet [4]. Most products that contain sulfates use it in a very low concentration. So even if they are not great for your hair, they are not that bad for you.

However, sulfates can indeed make your hair drier or be too harsh for your hair, and can potentially cause damage to your hair when overused.

A study [5] states that sulfates can cause damage to hair protein. While another scientific study [6] suggests that sulfates can even cause a painful allergic rash, contact dermatitis, in some people. Hence, it’s best to check your hair health and consult a doctor before switching to a sulfate-free shampoo.

Can You Wash Your Hair Everyday With Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

A daily hair wash is only required when your hair is extremely oily. Whether your hair is dry or oily depends upon the texture of your hair. Usually, hair that is straight and fine is oilier than thick, curly hair.

While prolonged and daily use of sulfate shampoos can make the hair rough and brittle, sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner can be used every day without damaging your hair.

Why Is Your Hair Greasy After Using Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

If you feel that your hair is still greasy after using a sulfate-free shampoo, you’re not alone. This largely depends on your hair type and the thickness of oil you use before washing.

Usually, ingredients in sulfate-free shampoos are so mild that your hair may feel greasy even after a thorough wash. Many sulfate-free shampoos have ingredients like decyl glucoside or coco glucoside that are very mild cleansing agents [7]. Due to their mildness, they may not be able to eliminate the buildups from your hair completely. If you want to overcome this, you will need to add some extra effort to form lather and remove buildup. Repeat the process if required.

Besides this, most of the manufacturers add higher concentrations of surfactants to make the shampoo robust. This, however, destroys the purpose of using sulfate-free shampoos as the higher concentration causes greasiness in the hair.

Can You Use Sulfate-Free Shampoo On Colored Hair?

It is always advisable to use sulfate-free shampoo for colored hair. Since they are mild and work gently, they won't dry out your hair, or fade your color too fast, unlike a shampoo that contains sulfates. 

What Are The Problems With Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

The biggest problem with sulfate-free shampoo is that many manufacturers replace sulfate with olefin sulfonate, which is a ‘close cousin’ to sulfate.

Although it may become sulfate-free with a mild variation, it can be harsher than the original sulfate. Similarly, the sodium lauryl sulfate in sulfate shampoos can be replaced with sodium Laureth sulfate that can also make it harsher.

So, if you are looking for a safe sulfate-free shampoo, go for plant-based and organic shampoos or make one at home.

Wrapping Up

Having said all of this, you don't need to let your hair go unwashed or avoid shampooing altogether.

Remember, everyone's hair type is different, and preferences may vary. You can choose a shampoo of your choice if you do not have any pre-existing skin or hair problems and are not allergic to sulfate.

If you develop allergic symptoms or conditions such as scalp itchiness, redness, swelling, and hair fall, it is essential to consult with your dermatologist.

Begin By Knowing Your Skin

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