What’s in Your Shampoo?

Pick up a bottle of shampoo and look at the list of ingredients. Chances are the shampoo contains sulfates.

Despite this chemical’s widespread use in numerous shampoo formulas, consumers are starting to become more and more aware that sulfates may just be too harsh for regular use. To make this ingredient even more controversial, health care professionals have also warned that sulfates pose certain health risks.

What are sulfates? They are a type of surfactant, or surface-active agent. All shampoos contain surfactants, which possess the cleansing and lathering properties to remove dirt and oil from the hair. Among the many kinds of surfactants, sulfates are used quite readily in numerous product categories, including everything from shampoos to toothpastes, body washes, liquid hand soaps and even laundry detergents and industrial cleaners. They have long been used in the majority of shampoos because of their low cost and how well they lather and clean. After all, who doesn’t like the experience of using a shampoo with nice lather?

So, what gives? The truth is that this good lather can come at a price. Shampoos with sulfates can over clean the hair, causing dullness, dryness and frizz, while leaving hair vulnerable for developing split ends and breakage. This is especially true if your hair is already dry or damaged, has natural texture to it (wavy/curly/kinky, or if you wash your hair very frequently.

What about color-treated or chemically processed hair? Sulfate shampoos also tend to quicken color fading. Sulfates are also a big no-no for those who have had a Keratin treatment; they will strip the treatment out of the hair.

What should you do? Check to see if the shampoo you regularly use contains sulfates and start to closely monitor your hair. Does your hair normally look shiny and feel healthy? Or, is it always dry or frizzy? If it is the former, your current shampoo is probably not too harsh for your hair, even if it contains sulfates. However, if you struggle with dryness or overly rely on leave-ins, conditioning masks or styling products to compensate for dryness and frizz, it may be time to switch to a milder sulfate-free shampoo.

What are the trade-offs? If you are accustomed to the cleansing properties of a shampoo with lots of later, it may take some time to get used to a sulfate-free shampoo. While many provide some lather, the cleansing experience is different. Try a few different brands and formulas to find one that works for you. With some adjustment, you will reap the benefits of healthier, hydrated hair!

What should you specifically look for on labels? Below is a list of the major types of sulfates. You will find that once you start reading labels it will become more of a habit, similar to how many of you now routinely check food labels while grocery shopping!

Major Sulfates:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS)

Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES)

Other Synonyms:

Sodium Dodecyl Sulfate

Sodium Salt Sulfuric Acid

What are the health risks? Beyond hair health issues, it is also worth mentioning that there has been some data suggesting that sulfates can also pose certain health risks. However, studies have yet to lead to definitive results or a consensus of opinion among health organizations. One of the reasons for this is the lack of information on the cumulative effects of long-term exposure to multiple products that contain sulfates.

That said, currently The Environmental Work Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetic Database rates the various sulfates between Low Hazard (1–2) to Moderate Hazard (3), with specific health concerns that include skin, eye or lung irritation (for SLS/SLES/ALES) and organ toxicity (for SLS/SLES/ALS).

In addition, EWG also claims that SLES/ALES can become contaminated with certain carcinogenic impurities during the manufacturing process. In stark contrast, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still considers the levels of any possible impurities in sulfates too low to be considered harmful.

Considering all of the above, try to pay attention to ingredient labels to understand what best meets your hair needs and overall health concerns.

Too busy to worry about reading shampoo ingredient labels? To make life easier, check out the curated list of shampoos on the Hair Alone app. For all recommended shampoos, the app details whether or not a shampoo is sulfate-free. The app does the label reading for you!

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