Hair

Why you should avoid shampoos with sulfates

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Beautiful naked young woman is smiling and using shampoo while taking shower in bathroom

Image: VGstockstudio / Shutterstock

One of the most common ingredients you’ll see in shampoo is sulfate. You may be under the impression that sulfate is an essential ingredient for a shampoo, and that your hair won’t get clean without it. Nothing could be further from the truth. In ancient Egypt and other civilizations, women used oils to cleanse their hair and skin. Shampoos—and certainly sulfates—weren’t even invented yet. Still, women from those times had long, silky luxurious manes that rival those of the modern women. In fact, there’s an argument to be had that perhaps those ancient women had silky hair because they didn’t use shampoos with sulfates. Interesting, right? Check the labels on the bottles of shampoo in your bathroom. Do they contain sulfate? You might want to get rid of them after you finish reading this.

What is Sulfate?

Sulfates are actually comprised of sulfate compounds that are found in a multitude of personal care products – not just shampoos. Sulfates can also be found in the ingredient list on labels of toothpaste, body washes, shaving foam, and facial cleansers. In cleansers that are mixed with water, sulfates create foam, which then emulsifies grease, which is why they are used in personal product cleansers in abundance.

Sulfates are a synthetic ingredient. They are partially derived from sulfur that is produced from petroleum. In other words, sulfates are made in the lab, not in nature. That’s one red flag you should be concerned about if you’re looking to use natural hair care products.

What Does Sulfate Do to Shampoo?

When you pour a little shampoo into the palm of your hand, add water and starts to massage, the shampoo suds up, right? That’s the foaming action of sulfates. The foam acts as a surfactant, which basically breaks down grease so you can rinse it away.

After you shampoo, what’s the next thing you do? Rinse, of course. And you know when the shampoo is all gone out of your hair, because now it’s squeaky clean. You can sometimes even rub hair strands together and get that squeak noise. That’s the sign that manufacturers have taught you to recognize as your hair being completely clean.

What’s Wrong With Sulfates?

The problem with sulfates is that they leave your hair squeaky clean. If that doesn’t seem logical, just wait. Your hair isn’t meant to be squeaky clean. That is, it’s meant to be clean. No one wants to walk around with a greasy head of hair. But it isn’t supposed to squeak.

Your hair strands are made up of three layers. The inner layer is called the medulla, the middle layer is the cortex, and the outer layer is called the cuticle. For the sake of information, the cuticle is a thin, invisible layer. The cortex is the layer that is where the hair strand gets its color. Your hair is a lot like your skin, in that you have a natural layer of oil that is supposed to be on the outside to protect the skin and hair. That oil is called sebum. It travels from the follicle and down the shaft of the hair. If you strip away that sebum with the use of sulfates in your shampoo, you wind up with that squeaky clean hair. That’s not the safest condition for your hair. Your strands need a layer of oil for protection and you just took it away. More to the point, the sulfates stripped it away. So the problem with sulfates is that they leave your hair squeaky clean. Now you can better understand why that’s not a good thing.

Why You Should Choose Sulfate-Free Products

Now that your hair is squeaky clean with the use of sulfate shampoo, several things will happen with regular use.

First, your hair will become dry and brittle. Without that protective layer of oil, there’s nothing stopping the air and sun from sucking any remaining moisture out of your hair.
Next, your cuticles will rise up. There’s no oil to smooth them down, so they’ll rise up and give you flyaway hair.

Next, you’ll develop split ends. Again, you’ve completely removed all your hair strand’s protection, so there’s nothing stopping those ends from splitting and lifting up like an old, dry floorboard.
Next, your scalp will begin overproducing sebum. In an attempt to replace the oil that the sulfate stripped away, your scalp will keep churning out sebum, which will make your hair greasy, which may tempt you to over-shampoo, which leads to a vicious cycle.

How to Avoid Sulfates

You probably had no idea you were doing this to your hair. Now that you do, how can you avoid sulfates? There are sulfate-free shampoos, and they are clearly labeled as such. Manufacturers are starting to listen to people who request that they stop adding sulfates to shampoos. You’ll find a big selection of brands that make sulfate-free shampoos at natural health stores. When you stop using shampoos with sulfates, you’ll see a noticeable difference in the condition of your hair. It may take some time to see results because hair doesn’t react immediately. But with continued use, that vicious cycle will stop and your hair will be in the best shape of its life.

Sulfate isn’t a necessary ingredient in shampoo, so you don’t have to be fooled anymore into thinking that it is. Once you switch up your hair care routine to sulfate-free shampoo and see the improvement in the look and condition of your hair, you’ll never be tempted to use shampoos with sulfates again.

Kate Supino writes from South Florida, where she enjoys the sun, the sea and the sky.