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Are Sulfates Really That Bad?

Should you be worried about sulfates?

If you shop for shampoo or body wash, chances are you’ve noticed an increase in products touting “sulfate-free” labels. Or maybe you’ve heard advice from friends that sulfate-free is the way to go. But what’s really up with sulfates, and should you definitely avoid them?

What are sulfates and what do they do?

Short answer: sulfates are what make products like shampoo, soap and toothpaste foam and lather.

Long answer: sulfates are surfactants, which means they attract both oil and water. This allows dirt and grime to be washed from the skin and hair easily. They’re also responsible for turning liquids into the foamy lather we’re used to when we wash our hair and body or brush our teeth.

Sulfates are essentially detergents. When used in soaps, they leave skin feeling clean and refreshed. In shampoos, sulfates create a frothy lather that removes dirt, oil and styling product buildup from the hair and scalp. The result is hair that feels fresh and lightweight.

One of the most common sulfates you’ll find in cosmetics is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). It’s been used safely in cosmetics formulations since the 1930s. Today, it’s accepted as a safe ingredient for cosmetic use in the E.U., by the United States’ FDA and by Health Canada.

It’s important to note: if you’re using a product that lathers, it contains a detergent. If that product is labelled sulfate-free, the detergent used in the formula is simply another type of lathering agent.

Why the concern?

So, if sulfates are safe and effective, why do they have a bad reputation? Turns out that sulfates can be too effective at washing away oil, which can leave hair or skin feeling a little parched. And if your skin or scalp is particularly sensitive, sulfates can cause irritations like redness or itching.

Milky Bar Soap is formulated without sulfates

Milky Bar Soap is formulated without sulfates

The verdict

Sulfates are effective and safe when used as directed in wash-off cosmetics like shampoo and soap. But they do have the potential to leave hair and skin feeling dry, depending on their concentration and what other hydrating ingredients are in a product.

Lush products, for example, are formulated with the smallest percentage of sulfates possible while still providing a rich lather and a clean feeling on the skin and hair. We add naturally cleansing ingredients like salt, fresh fruit juices and essential oils to complement the effects of surfactants. And we always make sure to include rich, hydrating ingredients like olive oil, butters and bananas to prevent over-drying of the skin and hair.

Bottom line: if you’re happily using products formulated with sulfates, there’s no reason you shouldn’t continue using them. If you’re experiencing skin or scalp irritation, or have especially dry or damaged hair, exploring options with gentler sulfates or no sulfates may be beneficial.

Low and no-sulfate options

If you’re considering reducing sulfates in your routine, there are a few options:

Seek out milder sulfates

While SLS is a popular sulfate in cosmetics, ingredients like ammonium laureth sulfate (ALS) and sodium alkyl sulfate are gentler options. These gentle sulfates still provide a rich lather and leave skin and hair feeling clean, but without as much potential to irritate the skin. You’ll find these gentle sulfates in shampoos like Blousey and Curly Wurly —both have been formulated specifically to care for processed or curly locks.

Go gently
Reducing the sulfates that contact your skin and hair may be beneficial if you’re experiencing irritation or excessive dryness. Try moving to a less frequent hair washing schedule (with dry shampoo touch-ups between washes if needed) or reconsider how you use your shampoo and body cleansers. Start with less product than you’re used to: a gigantic pile of bubbles may feel satisfying, but you can still get a good clean with a smaller amount (and it’s easy to add more as needed). Lather the product in your hands and use the foam to wash your hair and body, rather than applying it straight to your scalp or skin.

Avoiding sulfates altogether

Looking to remove sulfates from your routine entirely? We list our ingredients quantitatively on every product, so you can be confident about which products you choose. Many Lush products are formulated without sulfates: look for soaps like Milky Bar, Ro's Argan and Figs and Leaves, and our clay-based face and body cleansers like Angels on Bare Skin and Let the Good Times Roll.