What are sulfates and are they really harmful to the health of your hair? Almost every shampoo you find in drug stores or beauty salons has some form of surfactant in its formula. The most common type is “sodium lauryl sulfate” which has gained a bad reputation in the beauty world in resent years and the number of new shampoos claiming to be sulfate-free is slowly increasing. There are the "no-poo" sulfate-free shampoo advocates claiming sulfates strip the hair of color and natural oils far too much; on the other side there are those who maintain that “sulfate-free” shampoos do a poor job of cleansing the hair because they don't foam up much or rinse out of the hair well enough, especially in hard water. Sulfonated Shampoos have been use for decades because they work really well in hard water and are extremely effective at generating a lot of foamy bubbles which help disperse the cleanser evenly through the hair too dissolve and rinse away dirt, wax, oil, and styling aids especially the kind found on your hair.
Sulfates and there are many types are cleansing ingredients called surfactants derived from coconut oil, palm kernel oil, soy bean oil and petrochemicals. In fact, there are many ingredients used for multiple purposes in a shampoo formula; water, surfactants, foam boosters, thickeners, conditioning agents, preservatives, modifiers and special additives to give the shampoo its color and odor…. all added at different strengths and levels to balance mildness and conditioning with effective cleaning performance.
To offset the harsh effect of some surfactants often some type of conditioning ingredients is also added. Typical conditioning agents include proteins, polymers, silicones, and quaternary agents. Each of these compounds with the help of a surfactant improves the feel and softness, while reducing static charge. Shampoos that feature conditioning as a benefit are called 2-in-1 shampoos because they clean and condition hair in the same step. Clarifying and purifying shampoos for example use a stronger type of “surface active sulfate” to dissolve and remove styling aid build up but are to strong for daily use. Finally you can use topical dermatological hair and body cleansers or baby shampoo which contains milder Amphoteric surfactants like TEA Lauryl Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Trideceth Sulfate or Lauroamphoglycinate. Those provide safe mild cleansing and conditioning benefits for sensitive skin, body cleansers, color treated hair or daily use.
If sulfate shampoos just aren’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of other types of surfactants used in so called (Sulfate-Free) shampoos. Non-sulfate anionic cleansers include Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Sodium Lauryl. These tend to be less stripping so you may find they don’t bubble up as much, rinse out and clean as well. A lot of people won’t want to hear this, but surfactants especially the milder Amphoterics are among the safest cleansers you can buy although some people with sensitive skin do complain of dry itchy scalp after using sulfate shampoos especially in dry climates. But most people have no problem, especially if they are followed by a hair conditioner and used infrequently.