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Sulfate-free: You’ve seen the term everywhere… on label after label at the drugstore, in magazine ads, and even in a few TV commercials. But what does it really mean? And should you be concerned that the shampoo in your shower isn’t part of this popular crowd? Here’s exactly what you need to know.
Wait…What Exactly Are Sulfates?
“Sulfates are detergents and they’re extremely good at what they do, cleansing [hair and the scalp] by cutting through dirt and grime,” says Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist in New Jersey. The most common sulfates you’ll spot in ingredient lists are sodium lauryl sulfate (a.k.a. SLS) and ammonium lauryl sulfate (a.k.a. ASL).
What’s in Sulfate-Free Shampoos, Then?
The short answer: Mild detergents that don’t completely wash away your hair’s moisture. They have names that are a mouthful and sound similar to sulfates, like sodium lauryl sulfoacetate. And unlike traditional shampoos, sulfate-free ones don’t froth or create as many suds. “Sulfate-free systems are more difficult to thicken, which means that chemists have to add more ingredients to make a nice product,” says Wilson. “Otherwise your shampoo would flow like water.”
Who Should Use a Sulfate-Free Formula?
While sulfate-based shampoos do a great job of getting rid of oil and product buildup, they can also potentially dry out your hair, leading to a lack of moisture and sometimes even damage like split ends, says Nunzio Saviano, hairstylist and owner of the Nunzio Saviano Salon in New York City. So, if your hair is naturally prone to dryness—coarse, curly hair or fragile, fine hair fit the bill—a sulfate-free product might be a good choice for you.
If you get regular dye jobs, you might also want to think about using sulfate-free shampoo, since sulfates can strip strands of color in addition to grime. And, if you know that you’re sensitive to sulfates, you should definitely opt for a sulfate-free formula to prevent any scalp irritation, says Anabel Kingsley, hair and scalp expert for Philip Kingsley.
However, if you’re someone who’s prone to oil or if you work out on the regular, the mild detergents in sulfate-free shampoo may not have quite enough power to clean your strands as much as you’d like.
Bottom Line: Do You Really Need to Use a Sulfate-Free Formula?
It really all depends on your hair type; those with parched or color-treated hair may benefit from using a gentler cleansing choice to prevent their hair from feeling super dry, while those who have greasier strands will probably find that they need to use sulfates to truly feel like their hair is clean. But if you’re curious, by all means go ahead and try a sulfate-free shampoo to see if it works for you! Brands like L’Oreal, Nexxus, and Bumble and bumble all make sulfate-free options.
More from Women’s Health:
7 Skin-Care Ingredients You Might Be Allergic To
Are You Using Your Shampoo the Right Way?
7 Gorgeous Ways to Style Wet Hair