18 Jun

- 2020 -

Are all Sulfates harsh?

First, let’s be clear on why sulfates are put into shampoos at all. Their main purpose is to create lather (aka suds) and take away dirt and oil from our hair. They are also commonly found in our toothpaste, bubble baths and basically any product we can expect to ‘foam up’.

Thankfully, there are better alternatives that can do the same thing. This is great as it means these harsh sulfates can stay off the ingredients list.

Below is a list of the harsh sulfates:

  • Ammonium Laureth (ALS)
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS)
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS)
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

There are more, but these are the most popular ones that rank highly in shampoos, so keep a look out.

So all Sulfate Free Shampoos are the way forward?

Indeed! There’s a bit of confusion in the natural hair word about sulfates. I’ll explain.

Sulfates are surfactants (cleansing agents). There are two categories for surfactants based on their cleansing power:

  • Primary – responsible for foam and cleansing e.g. ALS, Isethionates
  • Secondary (also called co-surfactants) – used to reduce irritation (e.g. in the eyes) and the drying effect of primary surfactants. E.g. Betaines, Polyglycosides

The four sulfates listed above (ALS and SLS) are the harshest of the primary surfactants and are generally the ingredients you should steer away from in the shampoo/conditioner that you regularly use. With that said, there are also mild sulfates (e.g. Sodium Myreth Sulfate, Sorbitan Laurate) that also cleanse but don’t strip the hair as much. These mild sulfates are fine to use, but there shouldn’t be more than two mild sulfates in your shampoo or you’re better off using a product with a single harsh sulfate.

PLEASE NOTE: Not everything ending in ‘-ate’, ‘-ide’ is an enemy.

To illustrate my point, here are examples:

*Crème of Nature Argan Oil Sulfate Free Shampoo has Glycol Stearate which is an organic compound that is used as an emollient. It’s also a product of stearic acid. Both stearic acid and glycol stearate are normally used to combine fats and oils (e.g. shea butter with water at a high heat). It’s also used to give your surfactant products a pearly look.

*Shea Moisture Retention Shampoo (a certified sulfate free shampoo) contains Decyl Glucoside. Sounds toxic doesn’t it? Well, it’s actually in fact a mild surfactant (remember, cleansing agent). Plus, it’s also plant derived, biodegradable and simply generates a lot of foam!

To be honest, a shampoo isn’t good if it isn’t cleaning your hair. So, it’s important there is something in there doing that job, without stripping your hair of its natural oils. So in this instance, you can have your cake and eat it too!

I’ll admit, this used to confuse me for ages and I passed so many products with the ate/ide ending thinking it was the *enemy*. Plus, I used to wonder how companies got away with such lies calling products ‘sulfate-free’! After doing my research, I realised they are most likely mild sulfates and/or surfactants.

LAST THING: Watch out if a shampoo has a lot of ingredients ending in ‘ates/aines/ides’ listed in the top 5 ingredients. That means that’s the foundation of the product and The Science of Black Hair states that the accumulation of these ‘mild’ surfactants may even be harsher than a sulfate shampoo. Two should be your max.


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