Hair Care

Do sulfates damage hair? – let us review the facts.

You have used a certain shampoo for a while now, and have been happy with the results, but you read an article on how sulfates damage hair. You check the ingredients on your bottle and horror of horrors….

It contains SULFATE!    

You panic and go straight to the internet to find out more……do sulfates damage hair?

Well, you have come to the right place!

A lot of information is available these days to provide evidence and opinions on shampoo and conditioners and which ones are best for you to use. Which ones are not so good, and of course which may be harmful.
But do we really know what they do to our hair?

Are they just irritants or are they actually dangerous?

Is it all a marketing gimmick?

What are sulfates?

To best understand what we are really dealing with, let’s take a look at a sulfate.

Sulfate is a salt or chemical compound derived from sulfuric acid…..wow that sounds pretty scary right!

But this is also a broader term for other synthetic based chemicals which may be found in shampoo, body washes, face cleansers and household cleaning products. They are labelled under the ingredients as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium ethal lauryl sulfate (SELS), and ammonium lauryl sulfate.

These are inexpensive foaming agents used by manufacturers in cleaning products to produce the richer lather.

The sodium lauryl sulfate is derived from coconut or palm oil which are rich sources of lauric acid. The lauric acid is processed by adding sulfuric acid from petroleum which is then neutralised by sodium carbonate. It is often the fact, that although it originates from a natural source, it is then chemically processed, which often causes the concern.

It is an anionic surfactant which works, in this case in our shampoo, by trapping oil-based dirt from the hair so that it can be rinsed away with the water. It lowers the surface tension between two ingredients, which is why it’s used as a cleansing and foaming agent.

Is it safe to use?

A quick search on Wiki will show:

Tests in the US indicate that it is safe for consumer use. The Australian government’s Department of Health and Ageing and its National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) have determined SLES does not react with DNA.[3]

So what is all the hype about?

Information provided by board-certified dermatologist Nicole E. Rogers, MD, FAAD, assistant clinical professor in the department of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, La.

Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate are two of the most common shampoo ingredients. They are a popular type of detergent that produces a lathering effect in personal care products and removes dirt and debris from hair by creating a rich lather.

The trade-off is that sulfates can be harsh on the hair by removing natural oils and allowing more damage to hair that is already color- or chemically treated. In addition, there are a few reports linking sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate to contact dermatitis in some people. For that reason, people with eczema or sensitive skin may not be able to tolerate them.

An abstract from the Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products by authors , , , …First Published November 17, 2015 states:

For the surfactant sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), this has resulted in a misunderstanding of the environmental health impact of the chemical and statements in the media that are not scientifically supported.

For most of us who use shampoo containing SLS it is safe to do so without the worry of skin or scalp irritation. This is because although it comes in contact with the skin or scalp, it does so for a short time before being rinsed off, therefore very small (if any) amounts of SLS will be left on the skin.

Should you go Sulfate Free?

There have been stories stating that sodium lauryl sulfates are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) however there is no medical evidence to suggest this is the case and therefore from this aspect, you are safe to use these products.

Some people do not wish to use products containing SLS, not from a health perspective, but purely for environmental and personal reasons.


Environment – It may be due to the destruction of tropical rainforests which take place in the production in SLS where palm oil is used.

Although SLS are not bioaccumulating, (they do not persist in the environment), some people do worry of a potentially toxic effect on aquatic organisms when washed down the drain.

Testing on animals – many products containing Sodium Lauryl Sulfate are often tested on animals to control the level of irritation on the skin, eyes and lungs. This may cause another controversial issue.

The end result

Ok, I must admit, that was a little like sitting in a chemistry class at school! But what have we learnt?

We now know what sulfates do to our hair and the damage they may cause by striping the hair of its natural oils.

We have learnt that this may lead to the scalp becoming dry or irritable, especially if we are prone to allergies, but we also know that they are not harmful to us medically.

But have we answered the question about the manufacturers marketing gimmick.

Well yes, it is true some manufactures will use the hype around the misconceptions amongst us to market their products as being better for you because they do not contain sulfates. As you can see, it is so important to do your research first and review the facts, which will allow you can make an informed decision when purchasing the best shampoo and conditioner for your lovely mane.

Many people these days are choosing to opt for solid and oil-based shampoos, rather than the typical liquid products. If you do decide to make this change, something to remember when using this type of product is the lack of lather, however, this by no means suggests that your hair will not be clean.
If you find at the end of this post, you are still worried about using a shampoo containing sodium lauryl sulfate, or you may think it could be the cause of your dandruff or dry hair, then I suggest you make the change to one without sulfates and give it a try for a couple of weeks.

See what results you get and establish if the change suits you.

I would love to hear about your findings.

Rest assured though, whichever shampoo you use, you are not causing any serious damage to yourself, even if you choose to go back to your old faithful!

4 thoughts on “Do sulfates damage hair? – let us review the facts.

  1. Great post!
    Today, you never know what your personal hygiene products consist of… I literally sat down one day and Googled every single ingredient in my shampoo to find out what it is that I am putting onto my skin. Let’s just say… I was NOT happy! For that reason I have switched ALL my cosmetics to a Botanical Brand that has very low chemical component… as minimum as possible. My advice (if I may) look for European products. They are much more regulated than anything made in Canada or US.

    1. Hi Agnes,
      I totally agree with you! Chemicals in products can be so damaging to our health without us even being aware they are causing the problems.
      I believe more and more consumers are moving towards healthier, natural products for health and environmental reasons.
      Thanks for the advice, I will certainly check out some European products!

  2. I personally avoid anything with SLS in due to what I’ve read about it and switched to more natural and organic health products. I must admit though with the organic shampoos, they just don’t lather like what I was used to! Still, I’d rather have this then being exposed to more chemicals on my skin which, let’s face it, isn’t getting any younger!

    Thanks for this informative and educational read! Love the site!

    1. Hi Teresa,
      Isn’t it amazing how we all think that our hair needs the lather of a shampoo for it to be clean? That is the power of marketing!
      Thank you for visiting my site and I am happy you found it useful.

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