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You've probably come across the term "sulfate-free" when shopping for shampoos over the past several years. Sulfates—which are usually listed as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) on an ingredient list—are foaming agents. This is what gives hair washes that lathering effect.
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But while a good lather is undeniably luxurious, foam isn't necessary for cleaning your hair. So what's the harm, then? Sulfates can irritate some people's skin and eyes, and for some, it's about protecting brittle or chemically processed hair.
"Sulfate-free shampoos are recommended when you want to disrupt the surface of the hair as little as possible," says hairstylist Kat Savano. She explains that SLS and SLES contain salt, which can affect keratin treatments and potentially create friction that leads to frizz. "Most other sulfates come from plant sources and are fine to have in a product."
According to hair expert Cataanda James, "Sulfate-free shampoo offers a gentler cleanse, ridding the scalp and hair of any debris and product buildup without stripping its natural oils."
Read on for the best sulfate-free shampoos out there today.
Best Overall: Playa Every Day Shampoo
Doesn't strip hair
Suitable for all hair types
Who else recommends it? Town & Country, Marie Claire, and Allure all picked Playa Every Day Shampoo.
Our number one pick is Playa's Every Day Shampoo. Suitable for all hair types, it calls on the humectant glycerin, coconut-derived surfactants, and kukui seed oil⁶ to gently cleanse your scalp and hair without stripping their natural oils.
A little of the honey-like formula goes a long way. And if you're craving a bit more lather, just add some extra water and gently massage it into your hair to create a luxurious foam. The scent of this sulfate-free shampoo is also incredible—think fresh and floral with notes of sandalwood and musk.
Key Ingredients: Glycerin, coconut water, kukui seed oil | Scent: Floral, sandalwood, musk | Size: 8.5 oz. or 16.9 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Budget: OGX Nourishing Coconut Milk Shampoo
Supports healthy growth
Some of the best SLS-free hair washes are super affordable. Case in point: OGX. This drugstore gem cleanses with moisturizing coconut surfactants, while egg powder gives your hair the protein it needs to grow long and strong.
Key Ingredients: Coconut milk, coconut oil, egg powder | Scent: Fresh, sweet | Size: 13 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Drugstore: L'Oréal Paris EverPure Sulfate Free Moisture Shampoo
Contains polyethylene glycols (PEGs
L'Oréal was among the first drugstore brands to launch a sulfate-free haircare line. This shampoo promises to clarify your scalp with natural surfactants and restore moisture, all while offering an impressive lather sans sulfates.
Key Ingredients: Natural surfactants, botanicals | Scent: Rosemary | Size: 8.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Luxury: Alterna Caviar Anti-Aging Replenishing Moisture Shampoo
Supports healthy growth
If you can spring the steeper price, we highly recommend Alterna. This top-shelf shampoo calls on caviar extract to improve elasticity and prevent UV damage, while rice protein and soy amino acids strengthen each strand.
Key Ingredients: Glycerin, caviar extract, rice protein, soy amino acid | Scent: Fresh | Size: 8.5 oz. or 16.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Volumizing: NatureLab Tokyo Perfect Volume Shampoo
Supports healthy growth
Contains artificial colors
If it's volume that you're after, this chemistry lab-inspired container has your name on it. In addition to adding body and strengthening with plant-based proteins, it contains stem cells to prevent shedding and encourage healthy hair growth.
Key Ingredients: Rice protein, soy protein, stem cells | Scent: Japanese cherry blossom | Size: 11.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Split Ends: Rucker Roots Smoothing Sulfate-Free Shampoo
Leaves hair shiny
May be too heavy for fine hair
Split ends got you down? This natural cleanser is filled with nourishing plant oils like avocado and olive to smooth brittle hair, prevent breakage, and restore shine.
Key Ingredients: Plant extracts, plant oils | Scent: Herbal | Size: 8 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Dry Hair: Leonor Greyl Crème Aux Fleurs Cream Shampoo
Supports healthy growth
"Crème Aux Fleurs is a soothing cream cleanser for the most dehydrated hair and scalps," Savano tells Byrdie. While seaweed and garlic might seem like odd ingredients for shampoo, they've been shown to provide strengthening benefits and help with hair growth.
Key Ingredients: Cocamide MEA, seaweed extract, garlic | Scent: Fresh, herbal | Size: 6.7 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Curly Hair: Curls Dynasty Cocoa Mint Moisture Rich Shampoo
Contains organic ingredients
May be too heavy for fine hair
This sulfate-free shampoo was formulated specifically with curly, coily, and kinky hair in mind. It contains a bunch of natural butters and plant oils to moisturize and add bouncy luster.
Key Ingredients: Aloe, fruit extracts, plant oils | Scent: Minty, sweet | Size: 8 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Natural Textures: Miss Jessie's Harm Me Knot Gentle Sulfate-Free Shampoo
Helps prevent dandruff
This super gentle, supremely moisturizing shampoo detangles naturally textured hair. Not only that, but coconut-derived surfactants gently cleanse while honey helps keep dandruff at bay.
Key Ingredients: Cocamide, honey, argan oil, vitamin B5 | Scent: Citrus | Size: 8.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Fine Hair: MoroccanOil Extra Volume Shampoo
This lightweight, sulfate-free formula is clutch for the fine hair camp. It earned a 5 out of 5 score from our home tester, who loved the long-lasting volumizing effect and divine amber-musk scent.
Key Ingredients: Glycerin, argan oil, cocamide | Scent: Amber, musk, floral | Size: 8.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Color-Treated Hair: Amika Vault Color-Lock Shampoo
"If your hair is color-treated, a sulfate-free shampoo is recommended in your wash day routine to help preserve your color," says James. We like Amika Vault, which is formulated to enhance vibrancy, prevent fading, and deliver all-around healthier hair.
Key Ingredients: Glycerin, amino acids, sea buckthorn | Scent: Sweet, citrus | Size: 10 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Damaged Hair: Olaplex No. 4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo
Repairs broken bonds
Damaged hair? Olaplex won't let you down. Our tester said it saved her bleached, brittle hair, helped prevent breakage, and made her hair feel stronger and healthier.
Key Ingredients: Glycerin, vitamin B5, bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate | Scent: Fresh | Size: 8.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for All Hair Types: The Mane Choice H2Oh! Hydration Therapy Deep Cleansing Shampoo
"This shampoo is sulfate-free and provides a deep yet gentle cleanse to remove excess oil, dirt, and pollution," says James. This strengthening formula contains a blend of detoxifying properties, she adds. This includes red and brown seaweed and kelp extract "to enhance hair's natural shine and improve manageability."
Key Ingredients: Biotin, sea minerals, glycerin | Scent: Fresh, herbal | Size: 8 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Sensitive Scalps: Aveeno Scalp Soothing Oat Milk Blend Shampoo
If you've got a particularly sensitive scalp, Aveeno is your best bet. This shampoo leans on colloidal oatmeal to soothe irritation while gently cleansing without any sulfates.
Key Ingredients: Colloidal oatmeal | Scent: Sweet | Size: 12 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Pump Bottle: Gisou Honey Infused Hair Wash Shampoo
Prefer the convenience of a pump bottle? Us too. But that's not all this shampoo has going for it. Gisou's Honey Infused Hair Wash promises to nourish brittle hair, smooth flyaways, add shine, and gently cleanse without stripping your hair.
Key Ingredients: Mirsalehi honey, argan oil, vitamin B5 | Scent: Sweet, floral | Size: 11.1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
The best sulfate-free formula overall is the Playa Every Day Shampoo, a natural hair wash that gently yet effectively cleanses, lathers well, and smells amazing. If you're on a budget, you can't go wrong with the OGX Nourishing + Coconut Milk Shampoo, and if you want the top-shelf stuff, it might be worth splurging on the Alterna Caviar Anti-Aging Moisture Shampoo.
Meet the Expert
What to Look for in a Sulfate-Free Shampoo
Free of all Sulfates
Make sure 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 it's an added bonus if the shampoo you pick contains extra hydrating or conditioning ingredients.
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?
Definitely, especially because these formulas are designed to retain moisture.
Does sulfate-free shampoo cause buildup?
Your hair may feel different after you start using a sulfate-free shampoo, 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, Murray explains.
Why Trust Byrdie
Theresa Holland is a commerce writer specializing in beauty. She has been contributing to Byrdie since 2020, where she covers haircare, skincare, and wellness products. For this story, she interviewed a hairstylist and a multiracial haircare expert for their product suggestions and expertise on sulfates. From the above list, Theresa has personally tried Playa, OGX, Alterna, L'Oreal, Olaplex, and NatureLab.
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