The Truth About Sulfates and Your Shampoo

Sulfates in shampoo have become a big issue as more and more people are reading the labels of their shampoo bottles to find out what is in them.

But do we really know what we’re looking for on the labels? Read more about sulfates here, and whether or not they should be included in your hair care routine.

Shampoo has been used in some form since the mid-1800s. It is a part of everyone’s hair care routine and general hygiene. In 1930, Procter & Gamble created the first shampoo with a sulfate base and there has been very little change in the formula since then.

Sulfates in shampoo help to clean the hair, which is exactly what you want from your shampoo. However 8 years ago, sulfate-free shampoo started hitting our shelves and people started to question what chemicals they were using on their hair and scalp, and what is best.

What are sulfates anyway?

Pulmonary surfactant molecule

This bit can get a bit science-y, but stay with me!

Basically, sulfates are surfactants. A surfactant is a mixture of molecules that can attract water and oil, so it allows cleaning products like shampoos and soaps to separate dirt and oil from your hair and skin and rinse it away with water, leaving you clean as a result.

They are responsible for that good soapy lather you can create when you massage shampoo in to your hair. Some sulfates are natural and others are synthetic. They have been an important ingredient in shampoos for many years.

What are the advantages of sulfates in shampoo?

Sulfates help to clean your hair thoroughly. There’s a reason they have been used in shampoos and other cleaning products for so many years.

In some ways, it is a psychological belief that the more foamy lather you can create with your shampoo, the ‘cleaner’ your hair will be. Although this isn’t actually the case, consumer studies do show that we like a good foam lather from our shampoos. It is all part of the hair-wash experience.

Sulfate-free shampoos won’t foam up in the same way. Sulfate shampoo is also a LOT cheaper than sulfate-free shampoo, which is good news for our purses!

This is because there are a lot more choices of shampoos that include sulfates than there are sulfate-free options.

What are the disadvantages of sulfates in shampoo?


First of all, it is worth mentioning that there is absolutely no proof that there is a link between sulfates and cancer as is sometimes reported.

This was a myth and the scare stories prompted people to start questioning their hair care products. The good news is that sulfates can’t harm your health or cause illness, but they are often criticized in other ways.

A sulfate-free shampoo is free of Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALS). While their job is to clean away dirt and oils, sometimes they are harsh and can also strip away too much oil leaving your hair feeling dry.

We need a certain amount of natural oils and proteins to keep our locks healthy. It’s a tricky balance.

Sulfates can also be a skin irritant, especially if you have sensitive skin. We’ve all had those times when we end up getting some shampoo in our eyes and they sting like crazy.

Sulfate-free shampoos are milder on our skin and less drying. They use ingredients such as Sodium Cocoamphoacetate, Ocamidopropyl Betaine and Coco Glucoside.

If you have any skin complaints or allergies, such as eczema, it is often advisable to opt for a milder shampoo, which is often a sulfate-free choice.

Why are sulfates coming under fire?

Sulfates first started coming under attack for causing frizziness, especially in curly hair.

They were also said to dry out and damage hair that had been colored or exposed to lots of chemicals.

If you’ve had chemical treatments done to your hair, your stylist might recommend a sulfate-free shampoo for a while. If your hair is prone to frizziness or colored regularly, there are also shampoos on the market that contain sulfates but are milder, more natural or made specifically for frizzy or colored hair.

Take the time to shop around and read the back of the bottles to determine which one is best for you and your hair type. If in doubt, do some research online, ask friends and family for recommendations and ask your hair stylist to recommend some products.

What’s best for YOU?


Don’t worry too much about whether you use sulfate or sulfate-free shampoo.

As I said, sulfates don’t harm your health, so the use of them isn’t life-threatening.

At the end of the day, it is a personal choice and sulfates are not dangerous.

What they can do is cause frizzy-haired people to have even frizzier hair, those with dry hair to have even drier hair or those with sensitive skin to have skin complaints, so there are arguments to make the switch to sulfate-free shampoo in these cases.

Guidelines say that small amounts of sulphur in shampoo are fine, especially as the formula is only exposed to skin for a short time and washed away.

Sometimes the choice will be taken away from you because of the heftier price tag attached to the sulfate-free brands compared to sulfate shampoos.

Some people can’t do without that foamy rinse that sulfate-shampoos create, while others have more sensitive skins and prefer a milder formula on their scalp and hair. The choice is yours. It is probably a good idea to give both a go and see what works best for you through experimentation.

It’s important to point out that all shampoos are drying to some extent, which is why we need to use conditioners.

Even sulfate-free shampoos strip hair of oils. Natural oils do need to be washed away to some extent because they keep hold of dirt, pollen and pollution (free radicals) and prevent us from having squeaky clean hair. The key is to find a balance between natural oils and clean hair.

Now that you’ve heard the argument for and against sulfates in shampoos, what do you think? Have you made the switch to sulfate-free shampoo products and if so, why? Have they worked for you? We would love to hear your personal experiences. Please share in the comment section below.

About the author

Rachel A.

Welsh Journalism graduate and full-time writer Rachel has a love of words! A workaholic with champagne desire on a lemonade budget, Rachel is most at home with her laptop on her knee and a cup of tea close by.

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