Is sulfate-free shampoo really better?
The term “sulphate-free” is the latest talking point in the hair care industry. While concern over the use of the chemicals in shampoos isn’t new,
interest has peaked over the past six months, mirroring the rise in popularity
for “natural” beauty. Peruse the shelves in any department store hair department
or salon, and you’d be hard pressed to find a brand not touting their new
“free-from” formula that promises you the hair you’ve always dreamed of in one
But should we really be reading the back of our shampoo bottles to avoid sulphates, or is this just yet another marketing technique? I asked a handful of
brands and experts to weigh in on the subject.
What is a sulphate?
Sulphates are cleansing agents, and you can find them in anything from your shampoo and toothpaste to car wash soaps and floor cleaners – though the latter
contain much higher concentrations, of course.
When it comes to your shampoo, sulphates (also called SLS) are to thank for the lathering-up effect so popular in TV ads, and they also rinse away any
product build-up and excess oil in your hair – brands use them because they’re
cheap and because they work.
“Sulphates are, have been, and will continue to be ‘go-to’ cleansing agents for many years to come because they are very effective, have passed all the
safety regulations, and can be easily formulated with other ingredients into a
gentle shampoo,’ says Rachel Zipperian, Herbal Essences scientist. On the
ingredients list of your shampoo, they’ll read as sodium laureth sulphate,
sodium lauryl sulphate, ammonium lareth sulphate and myreth sulphate.
What’s the issue?
Advocates of natural beauty have been voicing their concerns over the use of sulphates in our shampoos for years, as the chemicals have been linked – though
nothing has been proven yet – to cancer. Sulphates are known to dry out your
hair and are widely accused of causing irritation and acerbating eczema. They
also cause uncomfortable stinging if you get any in your eyes when you’re
rinsing out your hair.
The experts I polled stopped short of berating sulphates, though. Steven Shiel, L’Oreal UK’s director of scientific affairs and the man behind
Kérastase’s first sulphate-free range, said: “Sulphates are not inherently bad;
they’ve been used in hair care products for many decades. But we listen to our
consumers, and they wanted natural products with the absence of certain
ingredients – in particular, sulphates, silicones and parabens”.
Adam Reed, celebrity hair stylist and founder of Percy and Reed, read from a similar hymn sheet. “I’m not necessarily against the use of sulphates, but a lot
of our clients were asking for a sulphate-free formula, so we offer both.” His
Perfectly Perfecting Wonder Cleanse and Nourish is an inventive twist on the
co-cleanse trend (shampooing and conditioning in one product) that took off in
the US last year, and uses aloe to wash away any dirt, oil and leftover
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