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By now, we’re accustomed to seeing shampoo and body wash—even hand soap—labeled as being “sulfate-free.” In fact, the term sulfate-free has become something of a buzzword. Much like words such as "clean," "natural," and "organic," it carries a lot of weight and expectations, and might even drive sales up. So, what are sulfates, and are they inherently bad for your skin and hair?
Sulfates are the foaming agents found in traditional shampoos. You know, the ones where you squeeze a big dollop into the palm of your hand, massage it into your hair, and feel that rich, bubbly lather? Those are sulfates at work. “They’re cleansing agents and create lather to help to strip oil and dirt, but may also strip moisture and color out of the hair,” explains Roz Murray, a stylist at Bumble and bumble in New York City. “They can also cause irritation on a sensitive scalp and create a negative charge which can create unnecessary frizz,” she adds.
That’s why people reach for sulfate-free formulas. They’re thought to keep hair color, moisture, and curls preserved more effectively and for longer than shampoos with these foaming agents. Although they might not lather up like you’re used to, know that your hair is still getting clean while looking healthier at the same time.
Below, our picks of the best sulfate-free shampoos.
Best Overall: L'Oréal Paris EverPure Sulfate Free Moisture Shampoo
L'Oréal was one of the first drugstore brands to base a line of shampoos on the sulfate-free mindset. This one restores moisture and cleanses well, without taking away too many natural oils.
Best Drugstore: OGX Nourishing Coconut Milk Shampoo
This drugstore gem is made with gentle sulfate-free surfactants to cleanse your oily scalp, as well as organic coconut milk and coconut oils that smell amazing and add a big dose of moisture.
Best for Color-Treated Hair: dpHUE Color Fresh Shampoo
This one is targeted specifically toward those who color their hair. Sulfates can be too harsh on color and strip it away over time, so you might see a big difference by switching out your normal shampoo for this sulfate-free and color-protecting formula.
Best for Color-Treated Type 4 Hair: SheaMoisture Purple Rice Water Strength & Color Care Shampoo
All color-treated hair needs extra TLC no matter the texture, but the stakes definitely go up when you have kinky, coily, or tightly curled hair. Not only will the purple tint prevent brassy tones, but the rice water is just what you need to grow your hair stronger. It also has plenty of slip, so you can safely detangle your tresses.
Best for Damaged Hair: Olaplex No. 4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo
Byrdie's senior editor Hallie Gould swears by this repairing shampoo from Olaplex, filled with ingredients specifically meant to mend color-treated or damaged hair. Another benefit? "It's the only sulfate-free shampoo that I've ever used that has a satisfying lather," she says. She uses it as her normal shampoo in conjunction with the Olaplex Hair Perfector or Olaplex Conditioner.
Best for Brittle Hair: TGIN Moisture Rich Sulfate Free Shampoo
Aloe vera is a naturally derived ingredient known for its soothing and moisturizing properties. The aloe plant's inner gel mucilage (the part that's used in skincare products) is made up of 99.5% water.
This shampoo fortifies your hair from the inside out, giving it the nutrients it needs to better absorb moisture. Infused with pro-vitamin B5 to help reduce breakage, it smooths the cuticle surface and gently cleanses with aloe vera.
Best for Fine Hair: MoroccanOil Extra Volume Shampoo
If you struggle with super-fine hair like some of us, then this formula from fan-favorite brand Moroccanoil might just do the trick. It's antioxidant- and nutrient-rich to bring natural volume back to your strands.
Best for Thinning Hair: Living Proof Perfect Hair Day (PhD) Dry Shampoo
Living Proof's Perfect Hair Day collection is beloved by many a beauty editor. The sulfate-free formula works through a patented molecule that gently cleanses and refreshes hair.
Best Soothing: Aveeno Scalp Soothing Oat Milk Blend Shampoo
Let the soothing power of oat and almond milk calm your sensitive scalp. Not only is this formula sulfate-free, but it's also free of dyes and parabens, and it's safe for color-treated hair.
Best for Shine: Reverie Shampoo
This natural shampoo is a favorite of former editorial director Faith Xue's, and for a simple reason: It's made with gentle ingredients that cleanse your scalp without stripping (like sweet almond), smells amazing, and leaves your hair feeling soft and clean. Plus, she swears it helps her hair air-dry better.
Best Luxury: Gloss Moderne Clean Luxury Shampoo
This vegan, hypoallergenic, and cruelty-free shampoo has zero sulfates. It's also formulated with coconut oil and Gloss Moderne's signature French Riviera scent, which makes it a truly luxurious shampoo.
Best Natural: Aveeno Pure Renewal Gentle Shampoo
Seaweed refers to countless species of marine plants and algae that grow in the ocean. They uptake minerals by absorption and active transport from seawater. Because of these processes, some seaweeds have a dense concentration of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, and lipids, which all pose benefits for the skin.
This sulfate-free shampoo boasts seaweed extract to moisturize and renew dry and damaged hair. The result is hair that's shiny and balanced.
Best Scent: Rahua Classic Shampoo
This natural shampoo uses the nutrient-rich rahua nut to repair dull, stressed-out strands and make your hair shiny and bright again. Quinoa, coconut, organic aloe, and organic green tea all work to bring your tired hair back to life. Plus, the palo santo oil smell is ambrosial.
Best for Curl Definition: Mielle Organics Babassu Conditioning Shampoo
A shampoo that leaves your hair feeling both moisturized and squeaky clean is hard to find, but this shampoo with organic babassu oil has done the job. It's ultra clarifying to get rid of product buildup, but it also conditions as it cleans to avoid stripping your curls. The results are less frizz and more definition.
Best Texture: Playa Every Day Shampoo
This sulfate-free shampoo is a Byrdie editor-favorite for its natural ingredients and uplifting scent. It uses a coconut-derived ingredient to gently get rid of buildup while preserving your scalp's natural oils. The texture is super unique—rich and honey-like—and the formula lathers nicely.
Best Vegan: Verb Ghost Shampoo
The ghost part of this shampoo's name comes from the Moringa seed oil that's found inside. It has a super lightweight moisturizing capability, so it hydrates and softens without weighing hair down. Multiple members of the Byrdie team approve of this pick.
The L’Oréal EverPure Sulfate-Free Moisture Shampoo (view at Ulta) earns the top spot on our list, effectively cleansing and leaving strands nice and hydrated (and it’s also super affordable, too). And while all sulfate-free shampoos are a great choice for those with colored hair, the dpHUE Color Fresh Shampoo (view at Derm Store) is an especially outstanding pick if you color your strands, specially formulated to safeguard your hue. Similarly, they’re great if you have damaged tresses—the Olaplex No.4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo (view at Sephora) is our go-to in that scenario—or if you have curly hair, we suggest the Mielle Organics Babassu Conditioning Shampoo (view at Mielle Organics).
What to Look For In a Sulfate-Free Shampoo
Free of all sulfates
Make sure, in fact, that it is totally sulfate-free. Some formulas will be free of common ones like SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate), but you also want to make sure that there aren't any others in the mix.
Choosing a sulfate-free shampoo may help preserve your hair’s moisture in and of itself, but bonus points if the shampoo you pick contains extra hydrating or conditioning ingredients to further up those effects.
Why should you use sulfate-free shampoo?
Using a sulfate-free shampoo is a good way to both help retain the natural moisture in your hair, as well as prolong the life of your hair color, says Murray. It’s also a good option for those with an easily-irritated scalp, as sulfates can cause even more dryness and itching.
Can you use sulfate-free shampoo every day?
Does sulfate-free shampoo cause buildup?
Your hair may feel different after you start using a sulfate-free shampoo but, according to Murray, it’s not build-up that’s to blame. Because sulfate-free shampoos remove less of the natural oils, your hair will feel different and it can take a few weeks to get used to how your hair feels after washing, she explains.