The Sulfate Debate

The term ‘sulfate-free’ is making its way onto an increasing number of shampoo and conditioner bottles. So is this just another marketing gimmick, or is sulfate-free the way to go?

The phrase sulfate-free is relatively new to the hair care market. Google Trends tracks this craze, which has been on a steady increase since 2007.

Sulfates refer to cleaning agents which are found in a range of cleaning products, such as toothpaste, window cleaners and hair care. Used primarily for its foaming qualities, sulfate is responsible for the creamy, lathering effect found in most shampoos.

Sodium lauryl sulfate is generally the most common sulfate found in shampoo and conditioners. This detergent is designed to cleanse hair, effective in removing any grease, gunk or oil left in your locks. Brands continue to include sulfate in their products, because they’re cheap, they work and they require minimal effort.

So, what’s the problem?

Sulfate has attained a bad rep for several reasons.

While sulfate in shampoos are extremely good at what they do, every up has its down. Sulfate is so effective when cleaning hair, that it can strip away all your hair’s natural oils and proteins in the process. For this reason, sulfate can be particularly harmful to people with already dry or damaged hair.

Being a detergent, sulfate can also encourage the premature fading of hair dye and undo the effects of a keratin treatment. For people with dry, damaged or recently treated hair, it may be wise to exclude sulfate from your hair care routine.

For curly hair, sulfate is often considered too harsh for most curls. The curlier the hair, the longer natural oils take to travel through. Sulfate is also known for lifting the hair cuticle, which makes hair more prone to frizz. For this reason, curly haired individuals may opt for alternative products.

Sulfate is also criticised for having negative impacts on the environment. This substance is not easily degradable and can stay in the environment for long periods of time, even if washed down the drain. Consequently, sulfate can also be harmful to aquatic animals.

What are the alternatives?

There is an abundance of sulfate free products now available on the market. These formulas are considered the gentler and less drying approach to washing your hair. While they tend to be more expensive than regular shampoo, they reap many other benefits.

Sulfate-free formulas do a better job in maintaining hair colour, managing frizz and preserving your hair’s natural oils. These oils are essential to stimulating growth and reducing hair loss or breakage.

Sulfate-free shampoo doesn’t foam up like it has previously. But sulfate-free products still do a great job of cleaning your hair and smell delicious.

All in all, sulfate will work better for some people’s hair than others. Despite the scare stories, the ingredient is 100% safe to use and presents no proven link to developing cancer.

However, as big brand companies continue to join the sulfate-free bandwagon, it might be time that more consumers do too.

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