What are sulfates and why are they in my shampoo?
Would you intentionally shampoo your hair with the same stuff used in garage cleaners, engine degreasers and auto cleaning products? How about detergents strong enough to get the grease off your dishes or launder your dirty clothes? If you’re using sulfate shampoo, specifically sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) and/or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) – that’s exactly what you’re doing! The sulfates in shampoos are a toned-down version of these caustic industrial and common home cleaning chemicals, but still not something you want to put on your precious hair and scalp.
So why do haircare companies use these ingredients? It’s the $$$! They’re cheap and plentiful, and they use images in their ads of women with long, beautiful hair shampooing with tons of bubbles and suds, to convince you that’s what you want.
Here are six things you need to know about sulfate shampoos:
1. Sulfates and the Structure of Your Hair
Just like your skin, your hair is composed of amino acids and elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulfur – the building blocks of protein. About 91 percent of each of your hair fibers is a fibrous protein called keratin. When that protein is damaged, it can weaken the hair, affecting its strength and appearance.
Sulfates are usually the villain when it comes to damaging your hair’s protein. This can leave you with split ends, breakage, and hair that’s difficult to manage. Because of this, stay away from sulfates if you want to optimize your hair’s health, appearance and strength.
2. Sulfates and Your Skin
Sulfates not only strip hair protein — in some people, they can cause severe skin irritation and a painful allergic rash called contact dermatitis.
Not everyone develops skin rashes or dermatitis after using shampoo or other products that contain sulfates; usually happens if you’re subject to allergies or have sensitive skin. Still, it’s best to avoid shampoos that contain sulfates just in case, as a severe skin and/or scalp rash can be painful and difficult to treat.
3. Sulfates and Hair Loss
Male pattern baldness is caused by a combination of hormones and genetic sensitivity to DHT, and sulfates aren’t known to affect either of these issues.
However, sulfates can be responsible for or contribute to hair loss in both men and women. If you’re susceptible to skin irritation from sulfates, you could temporarily lose hair as a result of irritation. It’s also possible that protein loss from excessive exposure to sulfates will weaken your hair, making breakage more likely.
By corroding the inner structure of the hair follicle and impeding hair growth, they can result in actual hair loss. In short, while sulfate shampoo isn’t directly linked to male pattern baldness, they’re best avoided if you have sensitive skin or naturally thin hair.
4. Sulfates and Hair Color
Many years ago, my wife colored her hair – now naturally and beautifully gray. She tried doing it at home, and she freaked out when the color came out much darker than she expected or wanted. She ran to her hairdresser, who told her to go the drugstore and buy a bottle of a well-known, popular brand of shampoo, which would lift some of the excess color. It worked quite well. Unfortunately, it also stripped much of the life from her hair, which required a series of hot oil treatments to repair. Her lesson was: Read The Label!
If you dye your hair, sulfate-free shampoos will help maintain your color and the life of your hair, which would be stripped by the detergent in a shampoo that contains sulfates. Sulfate-free shampoos don’t foam and lather like a traditional shampoo, an aesthetic difference that accounts for the widespread use of sulfates in hair care products. Rest assured, however, that despite the reduced lather, your sulfate-free shampoo is still doing its job!
5. Sulfates and Health
We’ve already talked about the ways in which sulfates are harmful to your hair, scalp and skin. But the problem goes much deeper. Their molecules actually penetrate the skin, which absorbs them like a sponge; in this way they enter the bloodstream, moving on to the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, tissues and cells.
Because sodium laurel sulfate is so harsh, it’s often converted into the slightly milder, but still damaging for hair and skin, sodium laureth sulfate. Unfortunately, the manufacturing process creates a contaminant called 1,4-dioxane, which is considered a carcinogen. Dioxane lasts a long time in our bodies, primarily because the liver can’t metabolize it effectively. You don’t want your liver soaking up dioxane!
6. Sulfates and the Environment
A few words about sulfates and the environment. Many products are tested on animals to measure the level of irritation to people’s skin, lungs, and eyes. I personally have very strong feelings about this, and I would not use a product that indulged in animal testing. Another issue of concern is that products with sulfates that get washed down the drain may also be toxic to aquatic animals.
Today, even the big mass marketing companies have become more conscious of the health ramifications of their products. Many, however, attempt to disguise or minimize the effects of problematic ingredients such as sulfates. I’m familiar with a multi-billion international cosmetic company whose website speaks openly of using sulfates in their products, their only disclaimer being that it’s only in their rinse-off products. Keep in mind that these sulfates still have time to damage your scalp and your hair until you rinse them off, and then they go down the drain to harm the environment.
With all these factors in mind, we need to be proactive in selecting the highest quality shampoos and other personal care products we can find. Avoiding sulfate shampoo is certainly one of the key issues if you want to have healthy hair and, most importantly, a healthy life.