What Are Sulfates?
We can’t go any further without answering this question: What are sulfates? Sulfates are a type of detergent or surfactant that can be found in a number of products that you probably use nearly every day, including face cleansers, body wash, toothpaste, and shampoo. What do these products have in common? They are all cleansers of some sort.
Sulfates play two roles in your products: The main purpose is to clean, while the other is experiential. They are primarily used because of their ability to attract both oil and water, leading to a deep cleansing. They also contribute to your cleansing experience because when added to a product, they help create a lather. This lather is associated with getting clean and offers a major sensorial effect that makes it hard to give up.
Sulfate-free routines and products have gained popularity in recent years, with sulfates widely being considered “bad.” But is that the case? From what you just read, they sound like they could be useful, so let’s get into it.
Are All Sulfates Bad?
There are several different types of sulfates that you may see listed on your beauty products. The three main ones you can expect to spot frequently are sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate. Others to take note of are TEA Lauryl Sulfate, TEA-dodecylbenzenesulfonate, and Sodium Alkylbenzene Sulfonate.
The reason sulfates have gained their current reputation is due to the fact that they can clean almost too well. Not only do they get rid of impurities that can be on your hair and skin, but they are known to be overly harsh and also strip away essential oils. The result? Dryness.
While sulfates certainly serve a purpose, they may have effects you aren’t interested in. Keep in mind that the three main sulfates we mentioned above are the same ones used in powerful household cleaners and detergents. Of course, not all sulfates are the same; one sulfate may be a lot gentler than another. Think of it like a dishwashing liquid for a machine versus one that you’d use to hand wash. The one for handwashing will be milder on your hands.
Sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate are all meant to break up oil, grease, and grime chemically with little mechanical action. This means you don’t have to scrub as hard; the sulfates do the work. There are benefits to this, the main one being that it creates a lot less friction and tugging on whichever surface the sulfates come into contact with—like your hair. Your hair is at its most fragile when wet, so any excess rubbing can cause breakage, which can make this appealing, but even so, the level of clean that these three sulfates provide isn’t always necessary.
Outside of the sulfates we’ve mentioned already, there are others that are known to be less harsh. These include Sodium Cocyl Isethionate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Sodium Socoyl (or lauryl/lauroyl) Sarcosinate, Ethyl PEG-15 Cocamine Sulfate, Dioctyl Sodium Sulfosuccinate, Sodium Lauryl Glucose Carboxylate, Methyl Cocoyl or Lauryl Taurate, and Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate.
What Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo?
With your intro to sulfates—the good and bad—out of the way, we can focus on a major question: What is sulfate-free shampoo? Well, you might have already figured this one out. A sulfate-free shampoo is simply a shampoo that’s free of all those sulfates we talked about earlier.
Sulfate-free shampoos generally don’t lather, or lather less than a shampoo with sulfates, but they get your hair just as clean. The difference is, they won’t strip your strands of anything they shouldn’t.
Your hair and scalp develop sebum and other buildup from things like sweat and the oils your body naturally produces. The cleansers in your shampoo are responsible for breaking down those oils, dirt, and debris so that they can be rinsed away, and sulfates are a common cleanser used for this purpose. But your hair needs oil to help hydrate and seal in moisture, so you don’t want to wash it all away. With that said, does sulfate shampoo dry out hair? Since sulfate shampoo really is getting your hair squeaky clean, stripping both bad and good oils from your hair, it can be very drying. That’s where sulfate-free shampoo comes in.
Editor’s note: What about sulfate-free conditioner? A sulfate-free conditioner is nothing more than a conditioner without sulfates, but keep in mind that this type of product is typically sulfate-free already. This is because you don’t use it to cleanse. Still, you may come across some conditioners that don’t adhere to this standard. If you’re using a shampoo without sulfates, it’s wise to find a coordinating conditioner. Usually, if a shampoo is sulfate-free, the conditioner from the same system will be, too!
Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo Good for Natural Hair?
Using sulfate-free shampoo for natural hair makes all the sense in the world. See, curls tend to be the driest hair texture because of the way they are shaped. It’s easy for natural oils from the scalp to make their way from root to tip on straight strands. However, with curls, the spiral creates somewhat of a maze effect, and oils can get trapped near the root instead of being evenly dispersed through the full length of each strand. With a natural challenge of retaining moisture, curly hair can’t afford any additional stripping from harsh cleansing agents like sulfates. This is also one of the reasons many people with curls skip shampoo all together for a co-wash or cleansing conditioner. Stripping oils from the scalp can also lead to even further dryness and possibly breakage.
The lather in sulfate shampoos may feel like you’re getting natural hair clean, but in reality, it’s removing what your hair needs. And the truth is, it is possible to get a deep clean without harsh chemicals like sulfates. Building up a lot of lather isn’t necessary for washing your hair effectively, nor is lather exclusive to sulfates. If sudsing up isn’t something you can do without, sulfate-free shampoos can be formulated with other ingredients to create the lather you’re used to. The bottom line is, sulfate-free shampoo can be a great choice for natural hair. Without sulfates, you’re able to get your curls clean and let them keep the natural oils that are so critical.
How Does Sulfate-Free Shampoo Clean Hair?
Not convinced sulfate-free shampoo can really get your hair clean? Maybe you have to try one to see for yourself, but know this: Shampoos without sulfates do clean your hair. Thanks to new ingredient finds, you can get the same clean results as you would using sulfate shampoo with significantly less dry out.
The making of a good sulfate-free shampoo is one that can actually emulsify or break down the dirt and oil on your strands and scalp. There are shampoos with mild cleansing agents like the Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine and Sodium Cocoul Isethionate (a coconut oil-derived cleansing agent) that do this while simultaneously infusing hair with nourishing ingredients—it’s the best of both worlds.
What Are the Best Sulfate-Free Shampoos for Natural Hair? Starting to think shampoo without sulfates deserves a spot in your shower routine? Us too! Below, we’re singing the praises of six of the best sulfate-free shampoos for natural hair.
Wash Day Delight Sulfate Free Shampoo for Curly Hair: Micellar water for your hair? That’s right! This micellar shampoo transforms from a water-like consistency to a foam—yep, you still get a great lather—to leave hair so clean and surprisingly soft.
Monoi Repairing Sulfate Free Shampoo: Infused with coconut-derived cleansers instead of sulfates, this shampoo is gentle enough for anyone and still can be used to get a good lather—just massage onto your scalp until you see those suds.
Goddess Strength Fortifying Shampoo with Castor Oil: When your precious curls won’t stop breaking, a fortifying shampoo is in order. And no, that doesn’t mean you need sulfates! This sulfate-free option moisturizes and strengthens for 94% less breakage (when used with the complete system versus a non-conditioning shampoo).
Almond Milk Sulfate Free Shampoo: Formulated with almond milk and without sulfates, this shampoo is ideal for extremely damaged and over-processed strands. Prepare to be wowed by how it reverses damage and restores softness.
Monoi Ora Sulfate Free Shampoo: Gentle cleansing is the name of the game when it comes to your curls. Use this shampoo to get clean while repairing and strengthening your hair.
Cactus Rose Water Sulfate Free Shampoo: For textured hair that’s fine and falling flat, this sulfate-free shampoo for Black hair gently cleanses, boosts volume, adds lightweight moisture, and helps hair hold long-lasting body.
How to Use Shampoo Without Sulfates
Does sulfate-free shampoo require a routine of its own? Not quite. You’ll wash your hair just the same, making sure to follow up with a sulfate-free conditioner, too. For a refresher on how to wash your hair, read our article: How to Wash Curly Hair (and How Often to Do It).
Should You Avoid Shampoos with Sulfates?
Time to wrap things up! If you’re still wondering if you should ditch sulfates completely, that depends on you and your mane. We don’t recommend sulfates for curly and textured hair for the reasons we’ve discussed—namely increased dryness. Other hair types may find that sulfates work for them, and we won’t tell you to completely revamp your routine. But if you find your hair is looking dry or dull, it may be time to avoid shampoos with sulfates and make the switch to one of the best sulfate-free shampoo options we’ve recommended here.
Next up: Once you’ve safely cleansed, you can Pamper Your Curls WIth These Hair Masks.