should you avoid sulfates

Remember the good old days when shampoos actually cleaned hair? Now, they always seem to leave a slick of oil and a layer on buildup all over your locks.

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But, if you’re fellow oily-haired girl with a mane that pumps out grease like there’s no tomorrow, you know what I’m talking about.

Sulfate-free shampoos are a no-go. And yet, you sort of have to go there because sulfates are slowly disappearing from the haircare aisles.

They make you bald. Give your cancer. Are the devil incarnated. That’s what the haters say. Science has a different opinion…

What Are Sulfates And Why Are They In Your Skincare Products?

Sulfates, or surfactants, are a family of cleansers derived from coconut oil. Its most famous members are:

  • Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS)
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
  • TEA Laureth Sulfate (TEA)

Their job is to help oil and dirt mix with water so they can easily be rinsed away.

Sulfate have another, more fun job, too. They make your shampoos (and body washes, cleansers, etc) foam and bubble. Mind you, a shampoo can cleanse well even if it doesn’t foam at all. But we all like a good lather, don’t we?

Do Sulfates Cause Cancer?

Ok, this isn’t an accusation thrown at every Sulfate. It’s Sodium Lauryl Sulfate that’s on trial here.

Do a quick internet search. You’ll unearth hundreds of websites saying that Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can cause cancer and cataract, slow down healing and keep children’s eyes from developing properly. Scary, huh?

Let’s look at the evidence before we panic.

This rumour seems to have originated with an email going around making accusations against Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Surprise surprise, it turned out to be an hoax.

The truth is there is no proof Sodium Lauryl Sulfate causes cancer:

  • SLS isn’t classified as carcinogenic by any regulatory agency or cancer authority
  • There is no reference in the scientific literature that even hints at the possibility of SLS causing cancer.

Don’t take my word for it. Do a quick search on Pubmed, (a repository of scientific studies). You won’t find a single one on there claiming SLS causes cancer.

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Does SLS Slow Down Healing And Hurt Children’s Eyes?

Remember the other crimes Sodium Lauryl Sulfate was accused of? Slowing down healing, causing cataracts and preventing children’s eyes from developing properly.

They all originated from a study done by the Medical College of Georgia in 1989. The study was done on animals (not children!) using concentrations far higher than those used in shampoos (or any other personal care product, for that matter).

This alone tells you the results aren’t the most reliable. But, here’s what the study found out:

  1. Slower healing charge: If the cornea is damaged, exposure to high concentrations of SLS can slow down healing. But, seriously, is this a surprise? If the cornea is damaged, pretty much anything will do more damage to it. More damage = slower healing.
  2. Cataracts charge: SLS will indeed cause cataracts if you immerse the lens of your eye in it. But the lens is set so deep within your eye, it’s impossible it will ever come in contact with SLS (you don’t want to know how this study was done, trust me!).
  3. Hurting children’s eyes charge: The researchers didn’t do any experiments on the effects of SLS on children’s eyes. This one is completely made up.


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Are Sulfates Irritating And Drying?

I hate to see folks accused of crimes they didn’t commit. If they’re innocent of something, I’ll take their defence. But that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to their shortcomings.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate may not cause cancer, or any other of those nasty things it’s accused of, but it sure is irritating. All surfactants are. It’s in their nature.

Let me explain.

Surfactants remove oil from hair (and skin). When they remove only the excess, everything’s cool. But, when they remove too much? That’s when your hair becomes dry and your scalp prone to irritations. No bueno.

But, not all surfactants are created equal. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is the worst culprit. When scientists want to know how irritating something is, they compare it to SLS! Eek!

Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate is slightly less irritating than its cousin SLS. But, if you have dry/sensitive hair, scalp, you’ll do well to avoid both.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate are the gentlest (and less foaming) members of the family.  Sure, if your hair is very dry or your skin very sensitive, they may not agree with you, either. But, most of us can use them safely.

There are a couple more things to consider:

  1. Concentration: The higher it is, the higher the irritating potential.
  2. Other ingredients: If the shampoo is also loaded with moisturising ingredients that replenish the oils surfactants strip away, they’re less likely to cause irritations.

If you use conditioner after shampoo and a moisturiser after a shower, you shouldn’t have any problems with the gentlest surfactants (again, unless you’re particularly sensitive to them).

Related: How To Care For Dry Skin

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What About Sulfates In Leave-On Products?

You know what else influences how irritating something is? How long it stays on hair (and skin). If it’s rinsed off after a few minutes (as is the case with shampoo), it’s less likely to cause irritations.

And that’s what we talked about so far. Shampoos and cleansers. But what about moisturisers, sunscreens and foundations? It’s true they rarely contain sulfates, but I’ve come across a couple when these cleansers managed to sneak in.

What the heck are they doing there? It’s not like a moisturizer is supposed to cleanse…

Sulfates are sometimes used in leave-on products to give them a pearlescent appearance. That’s it.

That’s not enough to justify the increased risk of irritation, imo.

Should You Avoid Products With Sulfate?

You should avoid Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate and leave-on products with sulfates. But the milder sulfates in rinse-off products, such as shampoos and cleansers, are perfectly fine for most people.

Do you use products with sulfates or do you prefer to avoid them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.