Just like gluten or refined sugar in health circles, sulphates have become a dirty word in the hair world. But do they really deserve their bad reputation? We weren’t so sure. That’s why we reached out to three top hair experts to find out once and for all whether shampoos formulated with sulphates are actually damaging our hair.
What are sulphates?
First up: what exactly are sulphates and why are they in your shampoo formula anyway? According to Principal Scientist for Hair Care at Procter & Gamble Asia Pacific, Saint Tiu, “sulphates are a type of surfactant commonly used in the cleansing systems of beauty products – from body washes to facial washes to shampoos. The most common forms of sulphates used in beauty products are lauryl and laureth. It’s important to be familiar with the different types of sulphates to understand the balance between mildness and performance,” he explains.
Education Director for La Biosthetique Australia and Asia Pacific and Director at Fuchs Hair, Alexander Fuchs notes their difference as being quite simple: “sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) is a lot milder than sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and is therefore found in high quality professional products”.
Why they’re included in shampoo formulas
“As with all surfactants, sulphates have a head group that likes water and a tail group that likes oils. This unique property allows soaps, body washes and shampoos to separate dirt and oil from skin or hair with the tail group, and then allow the water to carry it away with the head group,” he adds. A little complicated, we know!
Sulphates are often used in cleansing products instead of other surfactants, as they’re “more efficient at lowering water’s surface tension, which results in better lathering and cleaning,” adds Tiu.
Why we’ve previously been told to avoid them
National Education Director for Pureology Karen Strano says that sulphates’ bad reputation came from the idea that they were an aggressive cleansing agent that stripped all the good oils that were essential to healthy hair, which in turn caused irritation and sensitivity.
Can sulphates damage hair?
While there have been rumours suggesting we should all stay away from sulphates, it’s important to note there hasn’t been any scientific studies that prove shampoos containing sulphates damage hair. “What can damage hair or irritate the scalp are cheap foaming agents in high quantities. So, customers need to watch out and focus less on what [a product] is free from and more on what has been put into the products instead,” explains Fuchs.
At the end of the day, “a shampoo needs a cleansing agent. If it’s not a sulphate, it’s another surfactant. Rather than looking purely at one ingredient, people should look at how much your shampoo foams up. [As a general rule], more foam and bigger bubble equals more irritation,” adds Fuchs.
The benefits of sulphate-free shampoo
After working with both sulphate-based and sulphate-free shampoos, Fuchs notes he hasn’t noted any major benefits of choosing a sulphate-free option. Instead, “where I see major benefits is in using salon professional shampoos with high-quality cleansing agents in low quantities, which are dermatologically tested and scientifically proven.”
However, shampoos formulated with sulphates may not be for you if you have an allergy to surfactants or contact dermatitis. Additionally, if you’ve ever had a keratin straightening treatment it’s likely you’ve been told to avoid sulphate shampoos, as there are murmurings that they can prematurely strip hair of a keratin treatment. However, there aren’t currently any scientific studies to back this claim.
The most important thing when you have a keratin treatment is to make sure you do your research and find a gentle shampoo (whether it includes sulphates or not is up to you) that will protect your treatment for as long as possible. The easiest way to do just that is to consult your hairdresser “as they’re familiar with your hair type, hair concerns and regular routine,” says Strano.
On the hunt for more hair tips and advice? Then read up on the hair mistakes that make you look older and discover four different ways to extend the life of your blow-dry.
What’s your Holy Grail shampoo? Let us know in the comments below.
Main image credit: Getty
Kate started working for BEAUTYcrew in early 2016, first as a contributor, and was then named Beauty Writer in 2017. She loves picking the brains of the industry's top experts to get to the bottom of beauty's toughest questions. Bronze eyeshadow palettes are her weakness and she's forever on the hunt for the perfect nude nail polish to suit her fair skin. Her words can also be found in Men's Health magazine, and she now works in PR.