Why you should switch to sulfate-free hair care + a list of gentler alternatives

In all honesty, I’m not much of a hair person. Yes, I do try to tame it enough to be presentable, but I never get it colored or treated professionally. When I found out though, that shampoos can break you out, I started paying more attention to what I use on my hair.

I've since took note of how different shampoos affect my scalp and hair, and was shocked to discover that certain variants would actually cause breakouts near my hairline. I knew that certain skincare ingredients should be avoided, and a quick look at the ingredients list of shampoos I used revealed they all had one thing in common: sulfates.

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What exactly are sulfates?

Sulfates are cosmetic surfactants commonly found in cleansing products including soap, toothpaste, face and body washes, and shampoos. They effectively separate oil and dirt from the skin, and carry them off when rinsed with water. It also gives that rich lather many of us (including me) have been taught to like. No wonder sulfates still remain the most common ingredient in many cleansers, regardless of their bad rep!

Any chemical ending in ~sulfate is part of this group. The most infamous of them all is sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS. Its cousins, sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) and ammonium lauryl sulphate (ALS), also make frequent appearances in cleanser ingredients lists.

Do they deserve the hate?

There’s no evidence proving that cosmetic use of SLS or any other sulfates have harsh side effects. A study by Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), a council independent from the cosmetics industry, even concluded that products with sulfates are safe for regular use - provided that products are used as directed, not left on the skin for too long, and rinsed off thoroughly. There are also no studies showing that sulfates in shampoos strip color off of hair any more than sulfate-free ones. Sulfates are known irritants, though, as most surfactants are, which explains why we don’t ever want shampoo in our eyes.

Equipped with this knowledge, I still decided to avoid SLS in the products I use. Despite its redeeming qualities as an effective cleansing agent, I noticed that cleansers with this ingredient tend to cause dryness and redness on my sensitive facial skin. That luxurious lather I love strips away not only dirt, but the natural oils which protect my skin. I find that my hair and body tolerate it just fine, since the skin in those areas are not as sensitive as the face, but as in my experience with some shampoos, hair products with sulfates eventually find their way to my face and sometimes cause problems.

What are good alternatives?

In my opinion, sulfates don’t really deserve all the hate but now that there are plenty of alternatives to choose from, I'd rather play it safe! Surfactants gentler than SLS include:

  • Sodium cocoamphoacetate
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine
  • Lauryl glucoside
  • Coco glucoside
  • Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate
  • Disodium lauroamphodiacetate.

Do note that the ingredients’ percentage in the formula plays a big role in how “gentle” the product is to the skin. For example, a product with SLS way down the ingredients list can be less harsh on the skin than a sulfate-free shampoo listing its surfactant as one of the top 3 ingredients. And of course, if you’ve already found something that works for you, by all means stick to it!

Effective sulfate-free shampoos work pretty much the same way, lifting oil and dirt from the skin in a less-stripping fashion. If you want to try alternatives, we’ve got your back! Here are some sulfate-free formulas we like:

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Belo Baby Hair and Body Wash (P219.75 for 200mL, supermarkets)

Baby shampoos typically claim to be tear-free and gentle to sensitive baby skin. I find this particularly true for this local product. It doesn’t foam up as much as my usual shampoo, but I love that everyone in my family can use it, literally from head to toe!

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Human Heart Nature Saloncare Shampoo ( P249.75 for 200ml and P499.75 for 495ml)

Marielle got to try this out when the line launched last year. This is one for those who love the scent of tropical coconuts - prepare to be transported to your fave beach as you shower! Avocado oil, sunflower oil, and sugar beet extract make the formula moisturizing as it cleanses. If coconut is not your jam (pun intended), all other shampoos by HHN are sulfate-free; take your pick!

Kracie Ichikami Moisturizing Shampoo( P595 for 500mL, Beauty Bar)

Both of our editors Liz and Den love this nourishing cream shampoo. This is magical to me, because they have different hair concerns and skin types! Aside from being free of sulfates, it touts a blend of oils and plant extracts that care for the scalp as it cleanses.

Yves Rocher Cleansing Vinegar (P495 for 150mL, Yves Rocher)

Okay, so this is not a shampoo, but it adds another level of cleansing if you find that sulfate-free shampoos don’t give that squeaky-clean feel you crave. Liz finds that massaging this into her scalp after shampooing (and before rinsing) has helped improve her typically oily scalp!

Have you already gone sulfate-free with your hair care products? Did you see any noticeable changes to your hair, scalp, and skin? I would love to hear what worked out for you, do share in the comments section below!

Sources: XOJane, Paula’s Choice Beautypedia, Cosmetic Ingredient Review, Snopes