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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 like nontoxic, natural, and organic, it carries a lot of weight and expectations, and might even drive sales up. So, what are sulfates, and why are they inherently bad for you?
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. These foaming agents can have negative effects when they prove too harsh for your hair, stripping it off its natural oils and drying it to the point where it’s brittle and limp. That’s why people reach for sulfate-free formulas. They’re thought to keep hair color 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 becoming healthier at the same time.
Below, our picks of the best sulfate-free shampoos.
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 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 healthier and 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 swears by this repairing conditioner 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 Shine: Reverie Shampoo
This natural shampoo is a favorite of editorial director Faith'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 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 intoxicating.
Best for Curl Definition: Mielle Organics Babassu Conditioning Sulfate-Free 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.