In the hair care community, there has recently been an increasing amount of focus on the presence or absence of sulfates in hair products, particularly in shampoos.
The discussion generally revolves around whether or not you should use products containing sulfates, what the potential risks are, and the differences between different types of sulfates.
What are sulfates?
Before beginning to consider where you stand in the conversation about sulfates, it’s important to understand what they actually are.
Sulfates are a type of surfactant, the shortened word for a surface active agent. They are common ingredients in many personal care products and cosmetics, including liquid soap, toothpaste, and shampoo.
These chemicals work to lower the surface tension of water, which allows the liquid they are in to more easily mix with water and create a foamy lather.
In the case of shampoo, this translates to the easy removal of oils and product-build up from the scalp and increases the effectiveness of other active ingredients in the shampoo.
Common types of sulfates
The most common type of sulfate you will probably see is SLS, or sodium lauryl sulfate. It is usually derived from petroleum, but can also come from palm or coconut oil. A closely related chemical is sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), which is a modified form of SLS. SLES undergoes the additional process of ethoxylation, which adds ethylene dioxide to transform SLS into a less harsh version of its precursor. SLS is more commonly used, as it is cheaper for companies to produce than SLES.
Sodium coco sulfate (SCS), on the other hand, comes exclusively from coconut oil. SLS and SCS are manufactured in a similar fashion, but research show that SCS is gentler on hair and your scalp.
The science behind this fact lies in the relative sizes of SLS and SLES compared to SCS. SLS and SLES both are molecules with a lower molecular mass and thus are able to penetrate the outermost layer of the skin and cause irritation. SCS on the other hand is more structurally complex and has a higher molecular mass. Therefore, it cannot make its way into the skin’s outer layer and cause irritation.
Will sulfates harm your hair?
Rumors have gone around that sulfates may have carcinogenic effects or can otherwise cause health problems. But it is important to address these claims for what they are, rumors. On Byrdie.com, Dr. Y Claire Chang, a board-certified dermatologist and beauty and skincare expert, says that there is no research supporting that sulfates can cause long-term health problems, and that the FDA and American Cancer Society considers them safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products.
However, harsh sulfates like SLS and SLES can be irritating to the skin on the scalp and strip the hair of its natural oils and proteins.
The hair shaft is made up of 95% keratin, and once this protein is degraded by something like the aforementioned sulfates, the hair becomes more vulnerable to damage. This can lead to dryness, more quickly fading hair color, and leave hair prone to split ends.
When you frequently wash your hair with a shampoo containing SLS or SLES, you run the risk of removing too much of the natural oils produced by your scalp. For individuals with hair prone to appearing greasy, the squeaky clean feeling produced by using such shampoos is a satisfying effect. But when too much oil is removed at once, the scalp may respond with an overproduction of oil, which can then trap you in a cycle of unhappy, greasy hair.
Contact dermatitis is another potential issue that could arise for those with more sensitive skin. This condition is a form of skin irritation that stems from contact with allergens or irritants like SLS or SLES.
With all of this said however, many of these unpleasant and unwanted side effects of sulfates stem from the use of SLS or SLES. Using a gentler sulfate such as SCS is less likely to cause such issues.