Parabens, (most) alcohols and sulfates—the three things we’re told to steer clear from in hair products. But are sulfates really that bad for hair?
To get to the bottom of the often-asked question, we reached out to Linda c. Foltis, VP of Research & Development at Function of Beauty, and colorist Kimberly Cannon of NYC’s Mark Ryan Salon. Below, we break down everything to know about sulfates, and what the experts have to say!
Sulfates by Definition
Before we get down to it, it’s important to note there are two types of sulfates.
“Fatty alcohol sulfates are surfactants commonly used in cleansing products, such as shampoos, body wash, facial cleansers and hair conditioners,” Foltis says. “In shampoos, the most commonly used fatty alcohol sulfates are Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Sulfate and Ammonium Sulfate. These are classed as anionic surfactants (negatively charged), which help remove dirt and sebum from the hair. They are very efficient in cleaning and produce good flash foam.”
Foltis adds, “There are also fatty alcohol sulfates used in hair conditioners, namely behentrimonium methosulfate. These sulfates are cationic (positively charged) and are attracted to the negatively charged hair surface to deposit and condition hair.”
How Sulfates Earned Their Bad Reputation
“In shampoos, fatty alcohol sulfates can be harsh on the hair,” Foltis explains. “This results in raised cuticles, oxidative hair color loss, and a stripped hair feel. The ‘laureth’ modifications are milder. Additionally, sulfates can be drying on the scalp. When formulated well, the negative attributes of sulfates can be overcome by blending with milder surfactants, and adding conditioning polymers and care benefit ingredients in the shampoo formulation.”
Why Sulfates Aren’t Always Bad
When it comes to the hair itself, Cannon says, “It’s important to properly cleanse the scalp [with sulfates] to avoid clogging your hair follicles. I find the trend of not shampooing or only using products completely sulfate-free to be very bad for the hair and scalp. It causes the sebum to build up to a level that our hair follicles can not handle. This therefore blocks oxygen to the scalp and eventually causes hair loss.”
In fact, one of the more highly touted haircare lines (Shu Uemura of Art) incorporates sulfates into “a lot of their shampoos,” Cannon says. “It’s a low amount, and they’re also full of ingredients that are great for the hair and scalp. Their Urban Moisture Shampoo contains SLES which is more mild than the common SLS.”
To Cannon’s point, Foltis adds, “The performance and mildness of a shampoo formulation does not depend on one ingredient, but on the composite of carefully chosen ingredients at the appropriate use level to achieve the desired performance.”
In the case that you truly want to avoid sulfates (whether for the hair, the environment or otherwise), there are alternatives.
When it comes to the environment (which sulfates have been said to negatively impact), Cannon suggests “looking for shampoos with sea salt, lemon, or even apple cider vinegar to properly cleanse the hair and scalp.”
When it comes to the hair, there are milder surfactants that can get the job done just as well.
“At Function of Beauty, we don’t use sulfates in our products,” Foltis says. “We use a sodium lauroyl methyl isethionate as our workhorse surfactant. This is blended with other mild surfactants and conditioning polymers tailored to our customers’ individual hair needs. It’s an extremely mild surfactant (mild for sensitive skin) that produces a luxurious foam, is easy to rinse out (which makes it perfect for all hair types) and leaves the hair feeling smooth and not stripped. Additionally, this surfactant helps to reduce color leaching from shampooing.”
Curious to know more about sulfates? HERE‘s a further breakdown straight from Justine Marjan!