Sulfate Free Shampoo: Pros and Cons for Those Who Care

By now, we all know how about the chemicals companies put into our beauty products. But did you know that there are plenty of synthetic chemicals in our shampoos and conditioners, too? While they seem to get the job done, some of us may be looking to reduce our exposure due to personal interest, skin conditions or to improve overall hair health. A popular way to change things up during your shampooing routine is with a sulfate free shampoo. Products without this chemical may be why your hair feels constantly dry and your dye job fades unusually fast.

What Are Sulfates?

If you check the ingredients list on your average shampoo, you will probably come across sulfates in their technical term, sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laurel sulfate (also know as SLS). This ingredient is a salt and acts as a surfactant. This substance reduces the surface tension of water, helping shampoo loosen grease and sebum from the hair and scalp.

That might sound helpful but this ingredient is also found commonly in household detergents and cleaning products. Beauty companies use this ingredient along with many other toxic and synthetic ingredients because they are cheap and seem to ‘get the job done’.

However, when it comes to our hair and using regular shampoo, sulfates strip off the outermost effective layer of hair and can strip the color of a dye job much faster. It may be a great idea to treat your hair more gently and invest in a sulfate free shampoo and conditioner. But, just as with anything, there are pros and cons to using sulfate free shampoos and each one must be weighed carefully to find out if this option is for you.

Pros

  • Because shampoo without sulfate doesn’t strip the hair of its natural oils, it doesn’t irritate the scalp and rarely causes allergies. Some people may experience eczema or even acne on their hairline from shampoo with sulfate because of rebound oil production thanks to the stripping of the hair and scalp’s natural oils.
  • Sulfates can also leave an unwanted film behind, so sulfate free shampoo is a cleaner, more natural alternative.
  • Many sulfate free shampoos contain more natural oils, so they can smooth down any unwanted frizz that can come with abrasive, oil-stripping sulfates. This is especially great for taming the unwanted effects of summertime humidity or the dry hair we experience in winter thanks to indoor heating.
  • Sulfate free shampoos are excellent for color treated hair because they don’t strip the outermost layer of hair. If you switch to this hair care, you can rest assured your dye job will last much longer.
  • The same can be said for a keratin treatment. Sulfate-free and clarifying shampoos always make for a gentler option that won’t undo our precious and costly hair routines.

Cons

As great as sulfate-free shampoos are, they do come with a few downsides:

  • Most of these types of shampoos do not lather well, so it can be difficult to know if you’ve cleaned your hair well enough.
  • They also require more than one wash if you have long or thick hair, so you end up using more shampoo to get the job done. That can be a negative if you’re on a beauty budget.
  • There is also a slight adjustment period to sulfate-free shampoo, so your hair may loose some of its volume that ingredients in other shampoos falsely supply.
  • Not to mention, most sulfate-free shampoos don’t help to alleviate dandruff, though there are a few products designed for this on the market.

Negatives aside, in the long run, shampoos free of sulfate are an investment in the overall quality of your hair, sans unnecessary chemicals. So if you’ve decided this type of hair care is right for you, then it’s worth making the adjustment in your routine.

There are many of hair care choices, but we believe we have gathered a list of the best sulfate free shampoos that exist. You can leave the guesswork out of it. Keep reading for our ultimate sulfate free shampoo list.

#1: Aveeno Pure Renewal Shampoo

Aveeno is a tried and true brand that is most convenient if you’re looking to go sulfate-free because you can purchase their products at any drugstore or on Amazon. This option is affordable, safe for color-treated hair and will lift any impurities that gather on your locks without any stripping. The added seaweed extract is a natural plus.

Photo: @aveenous

#2: L’Oreal Ever Strong Sulfate-Free Fortify System

This L’Oreal Ever Strong Sulfate-Free Fortify System is also an easy find and affordable for an 8.5 ounce bottle. The volume your hair would normally lose from sulfate-free shampoo is gained thanks to their patented amino acid complex that helps weak hair appear to be thicker.

Photo: L’Oreal

#3: Pureology Hydrate Sheer

Pureology may be on the more expensive side for sulfate-free options, but this line is known for it’s superior quality. Every shampoo they make is sulfate-free. The hydrate line is meant for color-treated hair and contains sunscreens for an added bonus! Certified organic rose, sandalwood and green tea botanicals in this product will work wonders on hair that craves a more natural treatment.

Photo: @pureologyus

#4: John Masters Organics Shampoo

Finally, John Masters sulfate-free option is not only organic and doesn’t contain harsh chemicals, but its pH balance is a great choice for dry hair. It’s ideal for color-treated hair and contains 17 natural plant extracts and essential oils that give hair the nourishment it needs, and doesn’t strip it down.

Photo: John Master Organics

If you’re looking for a sulfate free dandruff shampoo, Maple Holistic Sage Shampoo is a highly rated choice that contains jojoba, argan and tea tree oil that are natural and beneficial on hair that needs a little extra TLC.

Even though it comes with a few downsides, the benefits of treating your hair more gently is probably worth it. Give sulfate-free shampoo a try the next time you make your hair care purchases.

Unsure of whether or not you should be using a sulfate-free shampoo? You’re definitely not alone. It seems like there’s always a new chemical in the spotlight, from phthalates right through to paraben-based preservatives, and this can make it hard to keep up with important news about the pros and cons of various additives.

Over the last 6-8 months, the chatter has definitely been focused on the potential dangers associated with sulfates like SLS, with numerous hair and beauty blogs talking about the dangers that they pose to sensitive scalps and dry hair.

And if you’re one of the people that should be avoiding sulfates, understanding all of this is absolutely essential. Although any damage is reversible, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that sulfates can cause short-term irritation, and damage to individual hair strands that you’d probably rather avoid.

We’ve put together this guide to help you decide whether or not you really need a sulfate-free shampoo, and to help you find the perfect product if you do.

WHAT ARE SULFATES?

Sulfates are actually fairly powerful detergents. They’re prized for their ability to cut through grease and they’re also added to shampoos because they help to build up a thick, sumptuous lather.

If you’ve ever filled the shower with cascading soap bubbles, or crafted yourself a whacky in-shower hairstyle, you’ve had first-hand experience of the intense lathering power that’s often associated with sulfates.

When it comes to their grease-busting ability, sulfates are also pretty much unparalleled. They have the ability to emulsify the excess oil that builds up over the course of a busy day at work, and they also act as a surfactant; lowering the surface tension of water so that it can lift away particles of dirt and grime.

There are some fairly significant disadvantages though. As discussed later in this article, sulfates are known to strip some of the good oils from your hair, and large concentrations can dry hair out in a matter of days.

Before we get down to the details, we’ve provided a few top-tips on spotting sulfates, and some notes that are designed to help you weigh up the pros and cons according to your own, individual hair-care needs.

SPOTTING SULFATES

Never noticed ‘sulfate’ listed on your shampoo bottle? Chances are that you’ve still been using shampoo that contains a sulfate of some description. This is because sulfates are actually a family of chemical compounds, each of which tends to be individually named on labels in order to comply with EU regulations.

This can make spotting sulfates quite difficult, particularly if you’re in a rush, or are just skimming the ingredients list for a general idea of your chosen shampoo’s chemical components.

Now that it’s a marketable asset, a great many manufacturers are sticking a sulfate-free label on their products, but it still pays to be careful, particularly if you do have dry hair or a sensitive scalp.

As a general rule of thumb, the three most common sulfates used in shampoo are Sodium Lauryl sulfate (SLS), Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALS) and Sodium Alkyl Sulfate (SAS). You should also keep an eye out for mentions of:

– Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
– Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate
– Sodium Lauroyl Isoethionate
– Sodium Lauroyl Taurate
– Sodium Cocoyl Isoethionate
– Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isoethionate
– Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate
– Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate

There are other sulfate compounds, but they’re rarely used in shampoo, so the absence of the above ingredients does mean that you are 99.9% certain to be safe.

ARE SULFATES REALLY HARMFUL?

Natural beauty advocates have been warning people about the dangers of sulfate-rich shampoos for quite a some time now, but working out exactly how bad they are is actually quite difficult.

A lot of the rumours about sulfates causing cancer or poisoning the environment are hugely overblown – there’s no evidence to suggest that these compounds build up in the water supply, or poison fish, and numerous peer-reviewed studies also reveal that there’s no risk of them interfering with cellular health either.

That said, there are some situations in which sulfates can damage your hair: they are quite powerful surfactants, which means that they can take too much moisture away from hair that’s already quite dry, leaving you with wispy, frizzy locks that are hard to control, and even harder to style.

Sulfates also lift the cuticles that coat individual strands of hair; exposing the cortex to moisture, and increasing the chances of breakage, split ends or slowed growth. There is some evidence to suggest that strong sulfates can strip away important peptides, proteins and water-resistant oils too, which can cause more long-term damage.

For those of us with sensitive skin, there is a risk of scalp damage too – sulfates are strong chemicals, and they cause irritation if they build up in your hair. This is particularly important if you suffer from eczema, or react to a lot of standard, of-the-shelf cosmetics.

SULFATES AND COLOUR

Because they lift hair cuticles, sulfates are also known to allow the large dye polymers that are added during the colouring process to escape from your hair. This speeds up the rate at which hair dyes fade, and forces you to replenish colours more often.

Sulfates also strip lipids from the surface of your hair, which means less protection from humidity, and a greater chance of general damage to individual strands. Over time, the lack of oily protection, enhanced by the harsh dyeing process, can cause permanent damage to your hair, and make it very brittle – preventing you from re-dying, and forcing you to let your hair grow out to combat the damage.

SHOULD I BE USING A SULFATE-FREE SHAMPOO?

If you have greasy hair, don’t generally suffer from dry hair, or don’t have any issues with skin irritation then sulfates are probably a-ok. Aside from the negatives outlined above, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these compounds, and they are particularly good at cleaning hair that’s prone to the buildup of excessive oils.

If you do have dry hair and/or sensitive skin, it may well be worth trying a sulfate-free shampoo. sulfate-free shampoos are also essential if you want to colour your hair, and don’t want the dye to start fading straightaway.

Note: Sulfate free shampoos don’t lather quite as well as their sulfate-rich cousins, but they do still clean equally well, and often contain additional ingredients to ensure that they’re just as good at removing dirt and grime.

CHOOSING A SULFATE-FREE SHAMPOO

To help you pick the right sulfate-free shampoo, we’ve pulled together a list of our favourite products, and organised them according to the issue that they’re best suited to treating. All of these products are ideal for sensitive skin, and should save your scalp from irritation.

The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo: Get the Facts and Find the One for You

Sulfate-free shampoos promise to leave hair hydrated and more vibrant, so we got the scoop from hair care experts—plus rounded up our faves—to help you make the switch and find the best sulfate-free shampoo for your budget.

Crank on the water, step in the shower and reach for your favorite shampoo. You stand a few inches away from the showerhead and take a minute, or two, to enjoy the rich lather that leaves your hair feeling squeaky clean. But there is a catch. That ultra-lathery shampoo you love possibly contains sulfates and may be doing more harm than good.

Pros and Cons
Finding the best sulfate-free shampoo starts with weighing the pros and cons. Shampoos contain surfactants or detergents, like sulfates, that are cleansing agents used to remove dirt, oil and other residue from the hair. “These ingredients are what give shampoo the rich lather that many associate with a good cleanse,” Dr. Joel Schlessinger, board-certified dermatologist and president of LovelySkin.com, says about sulfates. Sulfates are used in most products designed to clean. Morgan Willhite, creative director at Ouidad, says you will find sulfates in shampoos, as well as in industrial and home cleaning products.

In the hair world, sulfates are found in 90 percent of shampoos on the market, thanks to their low cost and effective cleansing properties. “They deeply cleanse, so if you are someone that has buildup on your hair or scalp, or doesn’t shampoo often, sulfates can help deeply cleanse and remove the unwanted buildup,” Willhite says.

Sounds promising, right? But not so fast. While sulfates have some positive properties, Willhite says they also have the potential to wreak havoc on healthy hair, the scalp and hair follicles because they overcleanse and leave hair dry and dehydrated.

“One downside to sulfates is that they often fade color-treated strands and create unwanted frizz,” Schlessinger says. “Additionally, some salon treatments don’t do well with sulfates, so your stylist might ask you to switch to a sulfate-free formula after receiving a keratin treatment or a Brazilian blowout.”

Schlessinger says there is also a myth that sodium lauryl sulfate may increase the risk of cancer but added that this claim has no scientific basis. “It raises questions,” says Dr. Robert Dorin, hair restoration surgeon and owner of the True & Dorin Medical Group. “The 1,4-Dioxane that it contains is known to be a carcinogen.” But so far, Dorin says, there have been no studies done to prove sulfates cause a higher incidence of scalp cancer.

The Science Behind Sulfates
Dr. Joseph Cincotta, chief chemist at Federici Brands who holds a doctorate in chemistry, says sulfates have what chemists call a high molecular-charge density, meaning there is a negative charge on one end of the molecule. When in contact with hair, this high charge density causes the hair to swell, releasing oils or dirt from the hair—so what’s the catch? “The problem is they also strip out all the vital oils in your hair and on your skin,” Cincotta says. “People are starting to move away from them in skin care products and hair care products because they tend to strip. They’re too aggressive.”

Sulfates attack the proteins found in the hair, and Cincotta says these proteins are essential to hair’s strength and flexibility. The feel, look and shine of hair come from the surface, where the surfactants are most concentrated.

“Once you start stripping and breaking down the protein in the hair, the hair will eventually break,” Cincotta says. “New hair is produced at the root, but the hair that’s already out is not healing itself as your skin would.”

Cincotta says the negative effects of sulfates, like the hair becoming rough and dull and losing the color pigments that have been put in, are even worse for people who wash their hair every day with a sulfate shampoo. For those who have never used artificial color on their hair, Cincotta says the loss of color pigments caused by using sulfate shampoos does not happen with natural color, but the hair will still become dry and brittle.

On the other end of the spectrum, sulfate-free shampoos tend to have lower charge densities than those with sulfates. “These sulfate-free surfactants are a lot milder on the hair, on the skin, on the eyes, and they don’t swell the hair as much,” Cincotta says, “and, therefore, you get less color leaching from the hair.”

Switching to Sulfate-Free
While some critics claim sulfate-free formulas do not properly clean hair, Schlessinger argues that shampoos formulated without sulfates use other purifying agents to cleanse the scalp. “They still are going to remove excess oil. The thing is that they won’t overdo it. They won’t swell the hair, remove the oils from inside the hair,” Cincotta says about sulfate-free shampoos. “They’ll only remove what’s on the surface of the hair, so you will feel like your hair is clean.”

Using a sulfate-free formula will leave hair feeling more hydrated, and Willhite says color-treated hair will keep its vibrancy and shine for an extended length of time. When reading labels, look out for ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate or ammonium lauryl sulfate, which Dorin says are two commonly used sulfates.

“If switching to a sulfate-free shampoo, make sure you hair is thoroughly saturated with water before shampooing,” Willhite recommends. “Wash your hair twice, as with the first shampoo you may experience little to no lather. The second shampoo will cleanse deeper, removing the buildup of product, dirt and oil.”

The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo for Your Budget

Under $10
Alba Botanica Hawaiian Shampoo Gloss Boss Honeydew
OGX Quenched Sea Mineral Moisture Shampoo
Samy Fat Hair “0” Calories Thickening Shampoo
Free and Clear Shampoo For Sensitive Skin

Under $25
Rene Furterer Lissea Smoothing Shampoo
DermOrganic Daily Conditioning Shampoo
Ouidad Climate Control Defrizzing Shampoo
Mixed Chicks Sulfate Free Shampoo

Under $50
Pureology Hydrate Shampoo
Rusk Deepshine Color Hydrate Sulfate-Free Shampo
DermOrganic Daily Conditioning Shampoo
Color Security Shampoo For All Color-Treated Hair

ALS vs SLS

We’ve put together some information about ALS and SLS which will hopefully be useful for you.We get a lot of questions about sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and ammonium lauryl sulphate (ALS). We would like to reassure you that our safe, natural shampoos are all ALS-free and SLS-free.

We’ve put together some information about ALS and SLS which will hopefully be useful for you.

What makes SLS irritating?

Although sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and ammonium lauryl sulphate (ALS) have similar sounding names and are both classed as anionic surfactants, they have different molecular structures. SLS is a comparatively simple molecule and is therefore quite small in size.

This gives it the ability to penetrate the outer layers of the skin, particularly when used in conditions which encourage the skin’s pores to open, such as when in a warm bath or shower.

When SLS penetrates the outer layers of the skin in this way, it comes into contact with more delicate cells that are in the process of being formed in the dermis. It is here that the irritation associated with SLS manifests itself, resulting in reddening and erythema of the skin.

How is ALS different?

ALS, by contrast, is a slightly more complex molecule and is physically larger with a heavier molecular mass. This means that it is more difficult for ALS molecules to penetrate the outer layers of the skin and so reach the delicate underlying layers of cells. Due to this difference, ALS is regarded as being considerably less irritating than SLS – on a scale of 0 to 10, where the potential irritancy of water is 0 and that of SLS is 10, ALS scores around 4 – clearly far less irritating than SLS.

SLS and ALS-free shampoos

We do not use ALS or SLS in our hair care products. All of our organic shampoos use different surfactants which are kind to skin. Full ingredients lists are available on each product page.

See our full range of SLS-free and ALS-free shampoos.

We often buy shampoo without really knowing what’s in it.

We may have been seduced into said purchase because of an attractive price, an online ad or a recommendation from a friend. Or – and let’s be honest here – simply because we liked the design and colour of the bottle.

It can be very disappointing to discover that, after a few times of using it, our hair does not feel its usual, silky self. We notice a crispiness, lesser defined curls, perhaps even damage.

Naturally, this will get us thinking about our choice of shampoo and whether it’s really the right fit for our hair or not.

Upon studying the ingredients listed on the bottle and trying to figure out how beneficial or harmful they can be to our curly hair, we are faced with many terms we are completely unfamiliar with.

Among them, we have several types of sulfates, the different types of which can be just as difficult to identify.

One of these sulfates is the ammonium laureth sulfate.

You have probably used several products containing this sulfate; it is common in all types of beauty and cosmetic goods including shampoos, but also toothpaste, body gels and soaps. It is a widely used ingredient in these kinds of products, not only because of its cleansing properties but also because it is very economical.

There is a lot of speculation about this particular sulfate and its effects on our hair, with many sources advocating for its use and many others warning us against it. In this article, we’ll get to the bottom of this common shampoo ingredient and its characteristics.

What is Laureth Sulfate?

Ammonium laureth sulfate is an ammonium salt. Although it is originally derived from the coconut, it is commonly created in laboratories for its use in all types of products.

As is true for every other sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate is a surfactant (“Surface active agent”) – that is, an active agent that creates tension between two surfaces.

In the case of a shampoo, ammonium laureth sulfate is used to create foam once it comes into contact with water.

This foam helps to wash away grease and dirt in general, as well as to maximize the cleaning efficiency of the product. It also has a psychological, commercial component to it, as many users believe that, the more foam a product generates, the more cleansing it is.

Ammonium laureth sulfate is an improved form of ammonium lauryl sulfate. The suffix, “eth”, comes from the added oxygen through a process known as ethoxylation, which makes this agent softer and more water-soluble.

This addition has proven to be a solution against sulfate residues that persist in the skin after washing your hair, and provides a milder, less aggressive agent.

Is it Safe to Use on Your Hair?

The problem with sulfates and the foam they create is that they do their job too well. A sulfate basically acts as a detergent that eliminates dirt when we apply it, but also our hair’s natural oils.

As such, it can eliminate our hair’s natural protection. This becomes a problem when using a shampoo with ammonium laureth sulfate on a regular basis. In this case, we are not leaving these natural oils enough time to form again.

When used sporadically, this sulfate is considered to be gentle on our hair and skin. If used excessively, though, ammonium laureth sulfate – and all sulfates in general – dry out our hair, to the point of causing skin irritations and even the apparition of dandruff. It also makes our hair that much more brittle.

In the long term, it may not only affect our hair’s health but its colour, too. In the most extreme cases (and, generally, mostly among men), it can lead to hair loss.

How & When to Use it

If you have dry hair or sensitive skin prone to irritation, you should try to avoid shampoos that include the most aggressive types of sulfates. These are (from most to least harmful): sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES).

Even so, this last one is not as aggressive as its lauryl cousin and, when used moderately, shouldn’t have any adverse effect on your hair.

If you have naturally oily hair, you may find that you need a sulfate-based shampoo to clean your hair properly. This may also apply to styling products such as hair gel or creams you use frequently.

Not all sulfates are as strong as ammonium laureth sulfate. There are other sulfates, such as Sodium Coco Sulfate, Cocoamphoacetate and Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate, that are becoming more and more present in different shampoo brands and that are not as strong as ammonium laureth sulfate.

It is also important to consider that not all shampoos include the same proportion of sulfates in their composition, though the percentage does not always appear among the ingredients listed. A good measure of their quantity is to study where they are positioned in the list of ingredients: the higher they show up, the more prominent they are in the product.

If you have curly hair, it is important to try to keep it as hydrated as possible for glossy and well-defined locks. Even so, it may not be the best idea to completely stay off sulfate-based shampoos, to achieve a good and deep cleaning of the scalp and hair. Try to incorporate a shampoo containing ammonium laureth sulfate into your haircare regime once or twice a month tops and stick to a sulfate-free shampoo for regular washing.

When deciding on whether to use a shampoo containing ALES or not – and, if so, how frequently – there are two pointers worth mentioning. If you have dyed hair, you should try and avoid using shampoos containing sulfates, as it can wash the colour out. The same is true for swimmers who frequent the beach regularly since the salt exposure will work cleansing enough.

shampoos and shaving foam lined up image by Georgios Alexandris from Fotolia.com

Ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are both commonly used surfactants in soaps and shampoos. The primary difference between them is the greater solubility of ALS in water.

Chemistry

Both ALS and SLS contain the negatively charged lauryl sulfate ion, CH3(CH2)10CH2OSO3-. The positively charged ion, however, differs between compounds: ALS contains the ammonium ion NH4+, and SLS contains the sodium ion Na+.

Function

The lauryl sulfate ion makes both compounds surfactants, which is a shortened version of “surface-acting agents.” As a group, surfactants reduce the surface tension of water, thereby allowing water to penetrate into fibers–a process called “wetting.”

The active components of ALS and SLS are chemically identical and should perform identically.

Solubility

The greatest difference between ALS and SLS lies in their solubilities in water.

At room temperature, SLS will dissolve at rate of 150 grams per 1 liter of water. However, nearly 500 grams of ALS will dissolve in 1 liter of water at the same temperature. In terms of effectiveness in soaps and shampoos, this difference is not meaningful, because soaps and shampoos are typically used in much warmer water, where the solubility of both compounds would be higher. The relatively low solubility of SLS does, however, prevent its use in clear or colorless soaps and shampoos because, at room temperature, these formulations would appear cloudy. Clear shampoos will therefore typically use ALS or another highly soluble surfactant.

Toxicity

Both ALS and SLS exhibit low toxicity by ingestion. If ingested in large doses, both will cause intestinal distress (nausea and diarrhea). The greatest risk is irritation to the nose and eyes. However, at low concentrations (such as those found in most shampoos), this risk is greatly diminished.

Interesting Fact

In 2000, a paper from the Journal of the American College of Toxicology was heavily altered and posted to the Internet. The article was altered to make false claims that SLS caused cancer. In debunking this rumor, Snopes.com notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows candy manufacturers to include SLS as an ingredient in some candies.

Ammonium sulfate in shampoo

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