As we learn more about what is in our everyday products–and what many of the ingredients actually do to us–we’re figuring out which ones we need to avoid, and why. Luckily, businesses are noticing; the word “-free” is a common sight on product labels these days, giving consumers the opportunity to steer clear of gluten, lactose, sugar, and pretty much every other additive we used to unknowingly consume before we were informed of their dangers. Given that the health of our hair and scalp is just as susceptible to the side effects of artificial ingredients as our digestive tract, taking care to know what’s in products that are part of our daily routines is just as important to our overall health as keeping tabs on our diet. For that reason, choosing a sulfate-free shampoo may be just the solution some people have been looking for.
1. So, what are sulfates?
Simply put, sulfates are cleaning agents that act as degreasers, and they’re commonly found in many household cleaners, detergents, and–you guessed it–shampoos. Think of the blue dish soap veterinarians and volunteers use to clean poor animals affected by an oil spill. Besides their degreasing properties, sulfates are also responsible for the foaming lather you get when you shampoo your hair. This foam lifts the dirt from the scalp and hair, making it an effective cleaner. Problems occur when you leave shampoos with sulfates in for too long, don’t rinse thoroughly, or use them too often.
The two most common sulfates found in shampoos are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. They do such a good job of cutting through oil that they can rob your hair and scalp of beneficial layers of protection. For many users, this results in an irritated scalp or dry, weak hair.
2. What going sulfate-free can do for hair health
While the argument can be made that sulfates do help in certain situations , there are many who believe that switching to a sulfate-free shampoo can produce wondrous results for those of us dealing with the following types of hair:
Colored/treated hair: While you may be thrilled with how even and natural your new hair color looks, the sulfates in your shampoo don’t care. All they see is a foreign substance on your hair that needs to be removed. Your stylist isn’t trying to upcharge you by suggesting a sulfate-free shampoo after a coloring or other treatment, they’re trying to help. Heeding their advice will help your new color last longer.
Dry/Frizzy hair: Oil tends to get a bad rap, especially in terms of hair health. While you don’t want your hair to look like you’ve used it to clean out a deep fryer, a healthy layer of oil helps to trap in moisture and protect your hair from harmful environmental toxins. Sulfates, though, are formulated to remove any and all oil from your hair, which can leave your locks begging for moisture, resulting in dry, frizzy hair. But, hey, at least it’s clean, right?
Coarse hair: Those with curly, dry hair are already fighting an uphill battle just trying to keep their hair manageable. In these cases, sulfate-free shampoos can be a gift from heaven. They help you maintain a healthy moisture level by protecting the natural oils. For those with coarse, wiry hair, this can mean the difference between walking out of your house with confidence and hiding your hair under a hat or in a ponytail all day.
3. How sulfate-free shampoos can help scalp health
While your hair gets all the attention, it’s easy to forget that hair health actually starts at the roots and scalp. It’s an area most don’t usually worry about unless they have a reason to. Out of sight, out of mind.
Until, that is, we’re trying to figure out why we’re shedding scalp skin like a molting snake or, worse yet, dealing with pain. Understanding how sulfates impact the skin, however, can go a long way toward knowing what to do when we are forced to focus on our follicles.
Buildup: Most common shampoos and conditioners leave your hair feeling silky and smooth–and that can be a huge problem. Many shampoos achieve this by cheating and adding waxes, polymers, and other chemical ingredients meant to mimic our scalp’s natural oils, or sebum. These artificial additives can be hard to remove–even with powerful sulfates. Over time, you’re left with buildup that keeps your hair and scalp from getting fully clean, which can cause irritation. Because of this, you may see sulfate-free shampoos that feature ingredients like apple cider vinegar, which helps to gently break up buildup.
Dry skin/flakiness: Sulfates can be hard on your scalp for the same reason they’re damaging to hair: they remove moisture, which can lead to dry patches and unsightly flakes. If you’re stuck using a shampoo with sulfates, do your best to not let it sit too long before rinsing; sulfates have been shown to irritate even the toughest skin when left on for too long.
Sensitive scalp: There are several reasons why a person may suffer from scalp sensitivity, but abrasive sulfates have been shown to be a major irritant. Conditions such as dermatitis and eczema can even be exacerbated by the cleaning agent. For many, using a sulfate-free shampoo may be an ideal solution, especially for those of us who may not have a specific scalp irritation but whose scalps are just more sensitive to chemicals in general.
4. When not to use sulfate-free shampoo
While there’s no downside to switching to sulfate-free shampoo full time, there may be occasions when you need a little help from a grease cutter. Face it, we’ve all been there, especially after a long weekend. For some, sulfates can even help manage overactive sebum production, which results in hair that’s naturally more oily. Usually, the best signs of whether sulfate-free shampoo is right for you are given by your body. Sulfate-free shampoos are typically more organic than their artificial counterparts, giving us a more natural option for cleaning and conditioning our hair. However, if you experience any skin irritation after giving it a try, you may want to consult your doctor to find out the source of your scalp sensitivity.
Just because dish soap with sulfates can clean our greasy pans, doesn’t mean we should to use it on our hair–at least not too often. Sulfate-free shampoos offer a safe way to promote hair and scalp health by maintaining the natural oils that trap the moisture our hair needs to look its best. This is especially helpful for people with colored, dry/frizzy, and coarse hair. Sulfate-free shampoos also offer a gentler solution for those with sensitive skin and skin disorders such as eczema that are irritated by sulfates..
Overall, sulfates have been deemed safe enough to use as directed–if they weren’t, they wouldn’t still be in most of our soaps and shampoos. However, when stacked alongside sulfate-free options, it’s hard to ignore the benefits of going without them. Sulfates do their job of removing oil, and they do it well, but that’s not always what your hair and scalp need.