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Sulfates: Good, Bad…or Both?

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We’ve all heard the hair buzzwords before (sulfates, phthalates, and parabens—oh my!) but what do they actually mean? With so much buzz about what’s good and bad in beauty, how do you separate fact from fiction? That’s where we come in. We got schooled by our head of R+D. Today’s topic? Sulfates.

What exactly are sulfates?
In the context of personal care products, they’re very efficient cleansing agents. Sulfates are actually salts commonly found in our environment. They consist of a sulfur atom and four oxygen atoms. When we refer to sulfates in personal care products (like shampoos), we’re referring to the combination of salts and fatty acids.

When did sulfates start showing up in shampoos?
They were introduced into personal care products
 in the 1930s.

What are the common names of sulfates that I might find in hair products?
We don’t use them in our products, but the most commonly used sulfates
are ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).

Let’s cut to the chase—are they bad for me?
Sorry, but it’s not that easy—and there’s a lot of misinformation out there. In shampoos, they can be not-so-good for you. When they’re used in shampoos, sulfates are very efficient cleansers—maybe a little too efficient—and can pull a lot of natural oil from hair and skin. They’re so good at cleaning that they can actually strip your hair of its natural oils and make it feel rough, dry, and brittle. They can also cause dryness and irritation on your scalp. For that reason, we choose to make sulfate-free shampoos because we believe there’s a gentler but effective way to clean hair.

But not so fast—not all sulfates are bad. When they are used in conditioners in combination with other molecules, they can actually help make hair smoother, softer, and visibly healthier. In this case, it’s wrong to say they are not good for your hair. That’s why we use the beneficial ones. They make hair softer and smoother to the touch, and they help dramatically reduce breakage from combing and styling. Sulfates in conditioners and treatments do not damage chemical treatments or color.

So which sulfates should I avoid?
The most aggressive sulfate cleansers: sodium lauryl sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate. These are typically found in shampoos.

So wait…some sulfates are OK?
Actually, yes!
When sulfates are combined with other molecules to form hair conditioners, they can be very beneficial.  Examples include behentrimonium methosulfate. This type of sulfate does not strip hair and is good for conditioning and detangling.

Do Living Proof products contain sulfates?
All of our lathering shampoos are all sulfate free. We have identified mild, non-sulfate alternatives which lather exceptionally well and gently clean hair. Those ingredients are isethionates, betaines and sugar-based cleansers called glucosides.

But what about your other products?
Like we said, some sulfates (when combined with other molecules) can actually be good for your hair!

So, should I go sulfate-free?
That’s really up to you. We recommend staying away from the “bad” ones—SLS, ALS, and SLES, which are found in shampoos. But it’s more about finding products with the best ingredients that work for your hair type than trying to avoid all sulfates entirely. The purpose of any cleanser is to remove (or strip) oil and dirt from hair, so products with and without sulfates can do this depending on the formulation or your skin’s reaction. Just because a product says “sulfate free” doesn’t mean it won’t strip hair of oil or irritate skin. 

At Living Proof, we work hard to create gentle, sulfate-free lathering shampoos. Find your best match here.

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