Sulfate-free shampoos, what are they and what do they really do for our hair?
Nowadays, there are so many different shampoo brands and hair care products to choose from. Anti-dandruff shampoos? Tons of that. Anti-fungal shampoos? Many drugstores carry that. Beard shampoos? You don’t need to go to a salon to pick up one! But, here’s one of the controversial products in the game: Sulfate-free shampoos.
In this article, you’ll get to know more about sulfate-free shampoos and you get to decide if it’s time to get one for yourself!
But first, What are Sulfates in Shampoo?
Sulfates are a type of surfactant (emulsifier, and/or foaming agent) that cleans and removes dirt from any surface. In comparison to other cleansing ingredients mixed in shampoo, sulfates are known to have the deepest cleansing effects. They belong to a group of cleansers called anionic surfactants, which clean away substances. Because of this, sulfates are not only used in shampoo but are also found in household cleaners and detergents.
Types of Sulfates in Shampoos
Sulfates can be easily found on the ingredients list of many shampoo brands. While their names can sound intimidating, it’s still important to be familiar with some sulfates! That is if you want to know what you’re putting on your hair.
The two most commonly known sulfates in shampoos are:
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Also usually referred to as SLS, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is used in low concentrations and is one of the most common sulfates found in hygiene products. SLS works to trap oil and debris in the hair so it can be cleaned thoroughly. SLS can be found in large concentrations in items like industrial cleaners, floor cleaning solutions, and car wash products.
This chemical is also a good foaming agent and helps products achieve a foamy lather as seen in toothpastes and shampoos. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also includes SLS on its list of multipurpose additives that are safe to add to food items.
Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Despite sounding similar; Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) are different. SLES is a relatively milder cleansing agent due to a higher amount of fatty alcohols which has a different chemical structure. It can be found in hair products, oral care, and other skincare products. Because the fatty alcohols found in this sulfate act as good emollients and thickeners, SLES also has effective foaming properties. This, therefore, causes the classic sudsy and bubbly lather we’re used to seeing on hair care products.
Why Should You Avoid Sulfates?
The popularity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate(SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate(SLES) has been diminishing over the years due to reports of their adverse side effects. It also may contain 1,4-dioxane, a contaminant in SLS production that has been found to be carcinogenic to humans.
In fact, the 1983 Safety Assessment Report of sodium lauryl sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate stated that SLS has denaturing and degenerative properties that can affect cells and can penetrate skin and scalp if used in high concentrations. Included in the report were SLS animal studies and the side effects observed were depression, labored breathing, diarrhea, and death.
On the other hand, human studies showed milder side effects. It was found that skin irritation was directly proportional to the concentration used. Additionally, it was concluded that SLS (and ammonium lauryl sulfate) appear to be safe if used briefly and washed off thoroughly.
Because of these possible side effects, more and more people are avoiding sulfate shampoos and other sulfate products.
So, what is a Sulfate-Free Shampoo?
Sulfate-free shampoos are simply shampoos free of any sulfate. Instead of SLS and SLEs, they are infused with non-sulfate surfactants that are more gentle in nature. Since most sulfate-free shampoos are dedicated for people with sensitive skin they are also paraben-free, silicone-free, and sometimes vegan and cruelty-free.
Sulfate-Free Shampoo Ingredients
Sulfate-free shampoos today mostly contain mild surfactants like amino acids and fatty acids from coconut oil and palm oil. They are most commonly known as amino acid surfactants. Some SLS-free shampoos also use sugar surfactants obtained from corn and other plants that have very similar structures and functions as amino acid surfactants.
Ester and the carboxylic (or amino) acid groups of chemicals are also good alternative surfactants because they contain a long chain of carbons that can also trap dirt, lipids and oils. Surfactants function by reducing the surface tension, or affinity of dirt to surface by forming micelles (oil trapping mechanism of surfactants).
Here are more mild non-sulfate surfactants used in the cosmetic industry along with their sources.
Best Non-Sulfate Surfactants
- Decyl glucoside: Glucose from corn starch, coconut and/or palm oil
- Caprylyl capryl glucoside: Glucose from corn starch, coconut and/or palm oil
- Sodium cocoyl glutamate: From coconut oil, corn, and fruit sugars
- Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate: Derived from fatty alcohols in beef fat, fish oil, and olive oil
- Sodium methyl oleoyl taurate: Partially derived from coconut and palm kernel.
- Sodium cocoyl isethionate Derived from coconuts, specifically coconut oil
- Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate Derived from coconut
- Cocamidopropyl betaine: Derived from coconut/palm oil fatty acids
- Sodium lauroyl lactylate: Derived from coconut oil
- Sodium lauroyl glutamate: Derived from corn
How do Sulfate Free Shampoos Work?
Sulfate-free shampoos work just like any shampoo, they remove dirt and oil from the scalp and hair. The only difference is it doesn’t lather unlike shampoos with sulfates.
What Shampoos are Sulfate-Free?
There are a lot of sulfate-free shampoos on the market today, and we’ll quickly run you through a list of our top picks.
Best Moisturizing Sulfate Free Shampoo
Paul Mitchell Awapuhi Shampoo
- Works with all hair types
- Powerful moisturization
Pros: Great for dry, damaged, and color-treated hair
Cons: Shady sellers online
Paul Mitchell Awapuhi Shampoo Review
This is my personal pick for best moisturizing sulfate-free shampoo. Paul Mitchell Awapuhi Wild Ginger Moisturizing Lather Shampoo provides an interesting yet effective blend of natural cleansing agents to ensure your hair stays healthy and clean.
The foremost ingredient in Paul Mitchell Awapuhi Wild Ginger Moisturizing Lather Shampoo is awapuhi extract. This potent substance is fantastic at repairing dry hair by providing deep moisturization. Awapuhi extract is also believed to have healing properties and can help promote hair growth.
Like most of the shampoos here, shady online sellers have taken to placing shampoo labels on other bottles, leading to customers getting the wrong product. For best results, buy yours in person, or get it from a seller with a solid background.
Best Sulfate Free Shampoo for Fine Hair
Pureology Pure Volume Shampoo
- Creates super soft and voluminous hair
- Color protection
Pros: Light floral scent, gives great volume and fullness
Cons: Can be drying, not good for sensitive scalps
Pureology Pure Volume Shampoo Review
The best sulfate-free shampoos for fine hair has to be Pureology Pure Volume Shampoo. This shampoo is made with ingredients specially formulated to plump up your hair and give it volume and fullness like never before.
Made with wheat protein and eucalyptus leaf, Pureology Pure Volume Shampoo will not only boost your hair, but also give it a deep and gentle sulfate-free cleanse. While this product is marketed for fine hair, it works great on color-treated hair as well.
However, many customers have noted that this is not a good product for sensitive skin, as it causes drying and leads to itchy skin.
Best Sulfate Free Shampoo for Color Treated Hair
Redken Color Extend Magnetics Sulfate-free Shampoo
- Specially made for different colors
- Provides long-lasting vibrancy and shine
Pros: Unmatched in boosting color
Cons: Need to use a lot of it to see results
Redken Color Extend Magnetics Sulfate-free Shampoo Review
If you’re looking for the best sulfate-free shampoos for color-treated hair, this is it. Redken Sulfate-free Shampoo was made with color treatment in mind, and it offers a thorough cleanse without washing out color or bleaching your hair.
This sulfate-free shampoo uses amino acids as its main active ingredient. Redken Color Extend Magnetics Sulfate-free Shampoo uses these acids to seal in color while using its other components to give your hair a thorough rinse, leaving it feeling fresh and free.
This does come at a price. Customers claim that while Redken Color Extend Magnetics Sulfate-free Shampoo does work, you need a lot of the stuff to get good results.
Best Sulfate Free Shampoos for Dry Frizzy Hair
OGX Extra Strength Damage Remedy Shampoo
- Coconut oil base
- Tames and heals frizzy, damaged hair
Cons: Can be greasy, doesn’t work too well on thin or fine hair
OGX Extra Strength Damage Remedy Shampoo Review
With its powerful healing properties, OGX Extra Strength Damage Remedy Shampoo is one of the best sulfate-free shampoos for dry frizzy hair.
A creamy coconut scent accompanies this shampoo. Alongside the essence of tiare and vanilla bean extract, the coconut oil works to repairr, soften, and revive your hair. This ultimately ends in a deep cleansing and rejuvenating experience.
Customers with fine hair have voiced their concerns about OGX Extra Strength Damage Remedy Shampoo not working as well for them. In addition, this OGX shampoo can feel quite greasy.
Best Sulfate Free Shampoos for Bleached & Relaxed Hair
Davines NOUNOU Shampoo
- Strong shine
- Deep nourishment even for strong hair
- Fiaschetto tomato extract for softness and deep hydration
Pros: Does a fantastic job of cleaning and moisturizing
Davines NOUNOU Shampoo Review
All Davines shampoos are built with a specific purpose in mind, and Davines NOUNOU Shampoo is no exception. This makes it one of the best sulfate-free shampoos for bleached & relaxed hair.
Davines NOUNOU Shampoo uses fiaschetto tomato extract to provide top-shelf softness and deep hydration for bleached and relaxed hair. This ingredient is very potent, so much so that even people with strong, thick hair will see the same results as someone with thin hair.
While there are some complaints about Davines NOUNOU Shampoo’s price, think of it this way: you get what you pay for, and with Davines NOUNOU Shampoo, you get one of the very best.
Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo for Men
Brickell’s Daily Strength Shampoo
- Potent scalp stimulation via peppermint and tea tree oil
- Also contains aloe vera, lavender, vitamin B5, vitamin E, and silk amino acids
- Promotes better hair and hair growth
Pros: All-around sulfate-free shampoo, aloe vera base instead of water, deep cleanse, lathers well
Cons: Can leave hair sticky, shady sellers online
Brickell’s Daily Strength Shampoo Review
Brickell has been manufacturing grooming products for men since 2014, and it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing. Their Brickell’s Daily Strength Shampoo is no exception, and it’s one of the best sulfate-free shampoos for men.
The powerful aloe vera base ensures that Brickell’s Daily Strength Shampoo has a potent healing effect, while the rest of the products work wonders on your hair. Lavender, vitamin B5, vitamin E, and silk amino acids promote healthy hair while adding luster and volume. Finally, peppermint and tea tree oil add their signature refreshing feel to Brickell’s Daily Strength Shampoo.
Customers have complained that the shampoos they’ve received are inconsistent in terms of quality; this seems to have been traced to sellers who replace the labels on products. For best results, get your Brickell’s Daily Strength Shampoo in person.
Another sore point is that this shampoo is also pretty sticky. You’ll need to rinse thoroughly to get Brickell’s Daily Strength Shampoo out of your hair.
Best Sulfate Free Shampoo for Deep Cleansing
artnaturals Tea Tree Shampoo
- Contains tea tree oil, argan oil, aloe, and sea buckthorn for deep cleansing
- Anti-itching and anti-dandruff
- Stimulates hair growth
Pros: Powerful tea tree smell, gentle deep cleanse
Cons: Doesn’t give as powerful of a refreshing feeling as other tea tree shampoos, dries hair out a bit, doesn’t lather too well
artnaturals Tea Tree Shampoo Review
artnaturals Tea Tree Shampoo is my pick for the best sulfate-free shampoo for deep cleansing.
This shampoo has a potent blend of all-natural ingredients: tea tree oil, argan oil, aloe, and sea buckthorn. These provide powerful deep cleansing while promoting healing and encouraging hair growth by dislodging old cells from your hair follicles. artnaturals Tea Tree Shampoo is also notable for its powerful tea tree smell, which is great if you enjoy that scent.
On the other hand, a lot of customers have agreed that artnaturals Tea Tree Shampoo doesn’t lather well, even in comparison to other sulfate-free shampoos.
Best Sulfate Free Shampoo for Oily Hair
Degrease Shampoo for Oily Hair
Special Features: Cypress, lemon, and rosemary blend to cleanse excess oil and leave scalp feeling refreshed
Pros: Very potent anti-dandruff shampoo, makes her shiny, doesn’t leave hair oily
Cons: A bit thick, smell isn’t for everyone
Degrease Shampoo for Oily Hair Review
Degrease Shampoo for Oily Hair is unsurprisingly, one of the best sulfate-free shampoos for oily hair.
It’s all in the name – Degrease Shampoo for Oily Hair not only gives your hair a soothing cleanse, but also strips away excess oils that leave your hair feeling gunky and heavy. Using the power of natural oils like basil cypress, lemon, and rosemary, Degrease Shampoo for Oily Hair will surely leave your hair feeling lighter and healthier after a wash.
Degrease Shampoo for Oily Hair isn’t a miracle cure, however. If your oily hair isn’t being caused by excess sebum production, then this might not be the product for you. Some customers have also commented on the consistency of this shampoo, as well as its smell.
Best SLS Free Anti Dandruff Shampoo
BELLISSO Apple Cider Vinegar Shampoo
- Naturally balances scalp pH to fight dandruff
- Also contains vitamin B5, argan oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and keratin for healthier hair
Pros: Very potent anti-dandruff shampoo, makes her shiny, doesn’t leave hair oily
Cons: Can cause skin irritation
BELISSO Apple Cider Vinegar Shampoo Review
BELISSO Apple Cider Vinegar Shampoo is unmatched in its ability to fight dandruff, and that’s why we’re marking it as the best sulfate-free anti-dandruff shampoo on this list.
BELISSO Apple Cider Vinegar has no parabens nor sulfates, so it’s very gentle on the scalp. Instead, it uses apple cider vinegar to cleanse and scour dirt from your scalp. On top of that, it’s also got keratin, vitamin b5, argan oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and keratin, which make your hair healthy, soft, and shiny.
However, BELISSO Apple Cider Vinegar isn’t for everyone. Some customers have reported skin irritation problems after using this shampoo. As with any shampoo that uses natural ingredients, check first if you’re allergic to any of them before investing in the product.
Best Sulfate Free Shampoo for Curly Hair
John Frieda Shampoo
Special Features: Anti-frizz formula provides long-lasting frizz-taming
Pros: Great for curly hair, also works great on wavy hair
Cons: Needs to be bought in person to avoid shady sellers
John Frieda Shampoo Review
John Frieda is a brand that really dissects the ins and outs of hair care. That makes the John Frieda Shampoo one of, if not the best sulfate-free shampoos for curly hair.
John Frieda’s anti-frizz technology makes its way here, too. This sulfate-free shampoo is guaranteed to not only gently cleanse your hair and scalp, but it’s also fantastic for fighting frizz. Curly hair is particularly vulnerable to frizzing, but John Frieda ensures that your hair stays happy and manageable all day long.
On the downside, some customers have complained about shoddily packaged John Frieda Shampoo bottles. To ensure you get the genuine article, it’s best to buy this shampoo in person.
Why use sulfate-free shampoo?
As mentioned above, sulfate shampoos may cause mild skin irritation to more severe allergic reactions. Other than that, there are a lot of other reasons why you should sulfate-free shampoos. Use sulfate shampoo if:
You have colored and/or salon-treated hair!
These days, still buying sulfate-containing products when you’ve been at the salon is considered a rookie mistake. Using sulfate-containing shampoo on color-treated hair can be too strong and will likely strip the color off too quickly. Other chemicals from salon services such as hair spa, hair relaxing or rebonding may also be removed by sulfates.
Your hair is dry and/or frizzy.
Sulfate-free shampoos maintain the natural oils on the scalp and hair, which ultimately leaves your hair with more moisture. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), shampoos that are formulated with strong sulfates can be drying to some hair types. This is especially true for ethnic hair and non-straight hair. If even after long usage of regular shampoos your hair is dry and frizzy, maybe give sulfate-free shampoos a shot!
You have a sensitive scalp or skin.
If your skin and scalp are on the sensitive side, the AAD says that using shampoos that contain sulfates may irritate your skin. Using a gentler sulfate-free shampoo can help in these times. However, if there’s excessive itching, flaking, or alarming red blemishes on your scalp and around your head, consult a dermatologist!
Your hair is damaged!
Your hair is fragile or damaged by continuous coloring, salon treatments, sun exposure, hair loss, and a myriad of other reasons. If that’s the case, the sulfate-free shampoo will be your best bet! Sulfate-free shampoos are gentle enough to not make the situation worse, so whatever moisture your hair still has left on its remains. At least, this gives your hair some much-needed rest and leeway from all the chemicals you’ve been dealing with.
You want to switch to more eco-friendly shampoos.
Sulfates have always been very controversial, but perhaps their environmental concerns are the ones that take the cake. SLS can be made from petroleum oil, coconut, or palm oil. Meanwhile, SLES comes from either palm or coconut oil only, which has led to several debates.
These sulfates are cost-effective for many manufacturers because of the versatility of their sources, especially when prices of various oils fluctuate in the world market. Reports have shown that the deforestation of many lands inhabited by endangered species has been caused by palm oil production. Consequently, concerns for ethics and the environment have come up.
Problems with Sulfate Free Shampoo
You might be thinking to yourself, ‘Sulfate-free shampoos have so many pros!’. However, we also want to be the ones to tell you that this product isn’t entirely perfect. Sometimes, it may also be not the right fit for you or your needs. You don’t necessarily need sulfate-free shampoos if:
Your scalp is oily.
If you have an oily scalp, sulfates might still be your friend in thoroughly cleansing your head. Sulfate-free shampoos won’t be able to absorb the oils on your scalp, nor ease the greasy feeling.
You’re having dandruff and other debris on your scalp.
For those looking for a deep clean that erases even the smallest traces of dandruff, sulfates are what you need. Sometimes, even dandruff combs and shampoo brushes aren’t enough to give your hair justice. Sulfate-free shampoos will also be too mild to fully give your scalp the cleansing it needs.
Sulfate-free shampoo doesn’t lather
Some people just love their foamy bubble baths and creamy, fizzy shampoos. Others don’t feel clean and comfortable at all if there are no bubbles to be seen as they rub their hair with the product. If that’s the case, then sulfate-free shampoos won’t be the best for you, since it has zero to no lather at all.
Your hair is just thicker and longer.
Sulfate-free shampoos can also require more than one wash if you have long or thick hair. As a result, you end up using larger amounts of shampoo to get the job done. That can be quite a hassle if you’re also on a tight budget.
You’re running on a tight schedule!
Because it’s harder to tell whether you’re cleaning your hair thoroughly or not, using sulfate-free shampoos can make you last longer in the bathroom. This is especially inconvenient if you are in a rush and there is still some grease left in your hair.
How to Wash Hair with Sulfate-free Shampoos
Using sulfate-free shampoo is similar to using regular shampoo.
- Rinse your hair thoroughly.
- Apply a small amount of sulfate-free shampoo to your hands. Use more water than shampoo, and work the shampoo through your hair.
- If you feel the need to, you can rinse, then shampoo again – but up to twice only.
- Rinse and follow up with other hair care products, like conditioner.
FAQs about Sulfate Free Shampoos
What are the side effects of sulfate shampoo?
Sulfate shampoos can strip oil and moisture from the scalp causing mild side effects like redness, itching, and swelling. Make sure that you rinse your scalp thoroughly to avoid prolonged contact with the sulfates in your shampoo.
What are sulfites in shampoo?
Sulfites are natural preservatives that can be used in food or hair and skincare products. They are usually used in preserving cosmetic formulas like hair colors and bleaches. They are strong anti-oxidants and may cause allergic reactions if used in large concentrations.
Do sulfate-free shampoos lather?
No, they don’t. This is due to the lack of SLS and SLES.
Does Sulfate Free shampoo cause hair loss?
No, sulfate-free shampoos don’t cause hair loss. If you’re experiencing hair loss after using a sulfate-free shampoo, change your brand and consult your doctor.
Do sulfate-free shampoos remove silicone?
Yes, they do. Sulfate-free shampoos are specially formulated to remove contaminants, including silicone.
Do sulfate free shampoos cause dandruff?
No, they shouldn’t unless you have an allergy to the natural ingredients. If you experience increased dandruff after using sulfate-free shampoo, switch the brand of shampoo you’re using. Additionally, if your hair is not washed and cleaned thoroughly, you may experience dandruff and product build-up over time.
How can shampoos be sulfate-free but still list sulfates as ingredients?
“Sulfate-free” products are technically just those without SLS or SLES. They can still use other, milder sulfates as cleansing agents. If you want a really sulfate-free shampoo, you’ll need to actively check each shampoo’s ingredients.
Is T Gel Sulfate free?
Neutrogena’s T Gel shampoo is not a sulfate free shampoo. This shampoo is formulated for people with dandruff that’s why it contains stronger surfactants like Sodium Laureth Sulfate to help remove dirt and product build-up.
Is Viviscal Shampoo Sulfate Free?
Viviscal is not a sulfate free shampoo. It contains Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate a strong sulfate surfactant that can cause mild to moderate skin irritation.
How to Check if Shampoo is Sulfate Free?
Most sulfate free shampoos will include a “sulfate-free” note and indication in their labels. If this is not included, there’s a big chance that the shampoo is formulated with SLS or ALS.
Sulfate-free shampoos do you some good, while sulfates in shampoo can still help you in certain situations. Neither will cause your hair problems, so it’s really just a matter of looking out which one between sulfate-free and sulfate-containing shampoos suits you.
While there are significant differences between the two, these don’t necessarily make one kind ultimately superior to the other. So check out all the info that we’ve selected and listed down for you, and make a balanced decision about what’s best for your hair.
Bernadette is a writer who’s also a trained and certified cosmetologist in New York. Her specialties are shampoos and hair treatments! She loves to share tips and tricks to find the best products you can use at home. When she’s not writing, it’s either Bernadette’s in school attending continuing-ed classes or traveling and taking photos!