One of the many questions we get asked pretty often is, “Why are sulfates bad for your hair?” Honestly, before we knew why people thought sulfates were “bad” we could feel how they reacted on our hair. Dry and stripped after shampooing, even if we didn’t know the so-called health risks, we realized that there is an inherent curl washing risk with sulfates. But back to the question at hand, are they bad for you. Well honestly, it depends on who you ask really.
WHAT ARE SULFATES?
Sulfate compounds (commonly called sulfates) are found in many personal care products such as shampoo, toothpaste, shaving foam, body washes and facial cleansers. In cleansers, Sodium Lauryl Sulfates function as surfactants: water- and oil-soluble compounds that, when combined with water, foam and emulsify greasy substances. There are hundreds of varieties of sulfates, but ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are the ones most commonly used in personal care products and ones many anti-sulfaters warn against using. These are the “traditional” foaming sulfates we’re most often exposed to through things like shampoo, toothpaste and dish detergent.
HOW DO WE COME IN CONTACT WITH SULFATES?
You can come in contact with sulfates just by drinking water and eating. Most drinking waters supplies contain traces of sulfates since dead plants and animals naturally release sulfates into the soil and the soil can also be contaminated by chemicals. The average amount of sulfates found in drinking (tap) water is 46 parts per million (this measurement is the mass of a chemical or contaminate per unit volume of water), at least that’s the amount in the water in Wisconsin according to Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services. Sulfates are also present in food. Some researchers say this is “natural” and others say it’s from contaminated water. You also breathe in higher amounts of sulfates if you live in a industrialized city with lots of manufacturing plants.
HOW TO DO SULFATES WORK?
Sulfates have a very simple job–get oil and water to mix. By creating a bond between the two, cleaning power increases significantly. Oil repels water and water alone can’t clean anything very well so sulfates are a necessary evil according to some researchers. Sulfates help strip out dirt and oil.
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE THINK THAT SULFATES ARE BAD?
The downside to all of that oil stripping is that sulfates will strip everything–the good oil and the bad oil: the dirty oil/old scalp sebum full of bacteria and oils left from hair and skin products and the environment. Too much stripping of your hair and skin can lead to dry cracked skin and brittle hair but if you use sulfates in moderation, this should never happen.
ARE SULFATE-FREE SHAMPOOS BETTER FOR YOUR HAIR?
This is a tricky question we like to answer in two parts. In our opinion the answer is both yes and no. For curly hair, sulfate free products are just simply gentler on the structure of our curl patterns and their natural desire to tangle and mat up. There are not many moisturizing sulfate shampoos that can hold a candle to a good moisturizing sulfate-free shampoo. That’s just how that cookie crumbles. However, we don’t believe that sulfates are inherently bad. There is a place for sulfates in hair and body care (we feel they can be skipped in facial skin care). Clarifying your hair once a month or ever so often has its benefits of which include: shiner hair and overall healthier hair due to a clean scalp free of build up that some sulfate-free shampoos just cannot strip no matter how many times you later up.
DO I HAVE TO USE A SULFATE SHAMPOO AND FACE AND BODY PRODUCTS?
No. It’s totally optional. Although we are of the mind that a good clarifying shampoo is always a good idea every month or so, especially if you use a lot of butters and oils in your hair, in the end, how you clean your hair with or without sulfates is totally up to you. Studies have shown that that sulfate-free products function the same way as sulfate-based products and can be drying to hair and skin as well. As for your face products, unless you have really oily skin or work out doors and feel like you need a sulfate-based face wash, we feel it’s optional. For body products we like products that have sulfates followed by a good dose of oil to seal in moisture and replenish your afterwards.
Deciding that sulfates are or are not bad is a personal choice. Don’t just fall for the hype of what you hear people saying. Do your own research and see what fits best with how you live our life and choose accordingly.