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"Synthetic" has become a dirty word in today's increasingly naturally-inclined beauty market. Over the past several years, the press has largely steered consumers away from ingredients like artificial fragrances and sulfates and toward formulas that are more "natural." Although, as we've explained surrounding this topic before, this word doesn't actually mean much, since there are no industry-wide requirements for what constitutes a "natural" beauty product. Sulfates in particular have been the victims of a particularly nasty campaign—but is it warranted?
To clear up the pros, cons, and potential risks of using hair products with sulfates and artificial fragrances once and for all, we consulted experts Michele Farber, Y. Claire Chang, Michelle Cleveland, and Kevin Ewell, who together provide a balanced view.
Meet the Expert
- Michele Farber, MD, is a New York City-based dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group.
- Y. Claire Chang, MD, is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Derm in New York City.
- Michelle Cleveland is a hairstylist and the owner of Hair Addict Salon.
- Kevin Ewell is a cosmetic chemist. He is based in Los Angeles.
Keep reading to learn the truth about sulfates and whether sulfate shampoos ultimately help or harm hair.
What Are Sulfates?
"Sulfates are the detergents responsible for the super-sudsy lather you get out of most shampoos," explains Cleveland. Sulfates are indeed the number one most common ingredient found in hair care products even today, and you know you're encountering them when you see names like sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate on an ingredient label.
- Type of Ingredient: Cleanser
- Main Benefits: Remove oil/dirt/product from hair and create lather in shampoo
- Who Should Use It: Those with greasy hair or heavy build-up
- How often can you use it: Daily
- Works well with: Moisturizing oils like coconut oil and argan oil
- Don’t use with: Deep cleansers like charcoal since the combination may be too harsh on hair
The Benefits of Sulfates for Hair
We know dozens of beauty obsessives who won't even touch a hair product that contains sulfates. We once heard a beauty editor audibly gasp at the word, like you might after hearing someone tell you they use a tanning bed. In fact, some people think they're similarly dangerous: In the late '90s, information began circulating in the media that some of the chemicals found in shampoo, including sulfates and lab-made fragrances, could potentially cause cancer. Since then, many consumers have become particularly wary of anything synthetic—sulfates included. However, the truth of the matter is rather innocuous: "[Sulfates] often get bad press and the natural crowd hates them, but they are perfectly fine ingredients," says Ewell. In fact, they are used in hair care products due to their myriad of benefits:
- Cleanse: As surfactants, sulfates are ace at ridding hair of dirt and oil. Sebum captures dirt, pollen, and pollution, which we definitely don't want in our hair, comments Ewell.
- Lather: Sulfates are also efficient cleansers because they create a foamy lather, allowing you to use less but do more; meaning: degrease.
- Remove product: If you happen to use a lot of hair products or products that are a bit heavier, you know that they can be a pain to get out. Sulfates clean hair of stubborn products and in that sense, actually help to prevent build-up.
- Fight bacteria: Sodium lauryl sulfate exhibits antimicrobial properties which can help to promote a healthy scalp.
- Easily rinse: Sulfates like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are not only effective at removing sebum from the scalp and hair but they are easily rinsed out with water (read: no product residue).
Hair Type Considerations
Since sulfates are essentially a detergent, they typically appeal to those with greasy hair. In fact, they can be so effective at cleansing that sometimes they actually strip the hair of its natural oils and nutrients. However, "If you are not sensitive, sulfates can be helpful in getting a deep clean in washes and shampoo," says Farber. "Stick to your oiliest and least sensitive areas," she advises. If you've got oily hair, look for a shampoo with the ingredient "sodium lauryl sulfate" which is tough on grease. Meanwhile, sodium laureth sulfate is a great option for normal-to-dry hair since it offers a gentler cleanse. Of course, if you have very dry, damaged hair, sensitive skin, or a skin condition, opting for mild sulfate-free products isn't a bad idea.
How to Use Sulfates for Hair
We're going to go out on a limb here and say that shampoo—sulfate-free or not—holds a permanent place in your hair care product arsenal. And "If you are concerned about losing your hair's natural oils, the only thing you can do is stop washing your hair. "All shampoos strip your hair of natural oil. That’s how they clean," Ewell tells us.
Since going shampoo-free is not really an option (let's be real), when using shampoos with sulfates, it's important to use them properly and in moderation. Doing so will ensure you reap the most benefits and avoid over-cleansing. "If overused, left on too long... sulfates will strip oil and lead to irritation," warns Farber. So you'll want to find your wash routine's "sweet spot" of cleaning hair while keeping it hydrated. For most, this involves simply washing hair with shampoo followed by conditioner. The result? Squeaky-clean satisfaction.
Are synthetic ingredients bad for hair?
Not necessarily. "If there is an animal-derived ingredient with outstanding benefits to your hair, some companies choose to re-create that ingredient in the lab rather than source it directly from animals," Cleveland explains. Not to mention, artificial fragrances (which, again, are not dangerous to your health) won't cause any irritation unless you have super-sensitive skin.
Are there any side effects to using sulfates?
According to Farber, "[Sulfates] may cause acne around the hairline when found in shampoo." Cleveland adds that sulfates can also cause premature fading of hair color and keratin services. Chang suggests you ask your colorist if it's safe for your particular color to use a shampoo with or without sulfates. Plus, if you have super-sensitive skin, the combination of sulfates and synthetic fragrance may cause a rash.
Can sulfates cause cancer?
Although Chang acknowledges that there's been some hype around sulfates possibly having carcinogenic effects, she goes on to say that "There is no research confirming that sulfates cause long-term harm when used in skincare or hair-care products. Authorities, including the FDA and American Cancer Society, consider sulfates safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products and do not consider it a carcinogen."
Indian J Dent Res. "Comparative Evaluation of Antibacterial Property and Substantivity of Chlorhexidine Containing Dentifrices With Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Tween as Surfactants: An in Vivo Study." 2013.
Indian Journal of Dermatology. “Shampoo and Conditioners: What a Dermatologist Should Know?” 2015.