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What are Sulfates + What do they DO?

We hear it everywhere..make sure you use a sulfate free shampoo. But what are sulfates and what do they do? Let’s dive in

First thing you need to know is that there are 3 different compounds in shampoos:

Sodium Laureth Sulfate- AKA SLES

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate- AKA SLS

Ammonium Laureth Sulfate- AKA ALS

When products claim to be “sulfate free”, essentially what that means is that it is free from ONE of the sulfates, not ALL of the sulfates.

What are Sulfates, exactly?

Sulfates are a group of chemicals known as surfactants, which are widely used in personal care products, including shampoos, body washes, and cleansers. The most common sulfates found in hair care products are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). These compounds are derived from sulfuric acid and are typically produced from petroleum or plant-based sources. A surfactant is a molecule that can attract BOTH water and oil. This is how shampoos, soaps and body washes can separate dirt from oil and then allow water to carry it away.

The Role of Sulfates in Shampoos

  1. Cleansing Properties: Sulfates are highly effective at removing dirt, oils, and product buildup from your hair and scalp. They work by reducing the surface tension of water, allowing it to penetrate more easily and wash away impurities. The foaming action created by sulfates also helps to dislodge debris, leaving your hair feeling clean and refreshed.

  2. Lathering and Foaming: Sulfates produce the rich lather and foamy texture commonly associated with shampoos. This attribute gives users the perception of a thorough and deep cleansing experience. The abundance of lather can make shampooing feel more satisfying and luxurious.

Sulfates are not always the bad guys, and you gotta know that most shampoos DO contain surfactants…sometimes a shampoo WITH sulfates is your friend, other times not so much.

Potential Effects of Sulfates on Hair and Scalp

While sulfates have their benefits, it's important to note that they may not be suitable for everyone. Here are a few potential effects sulfates may have on your hair and scalp:

  1. Stripping Natural Oils: Sulfates are powerful cleansers, but they can also strip away natural oils from your hair and scalp. This can lead to dryness, frizziness, and even scalp irritation in some individuals. If you have naturally dry or sensitive hair and scalp, you might consider using sulfate-free alternatives.

  2. Color-Treated Hair Fading: Sulfates can cause color-treated hair to fade more quickly. The harsh cleansing action can strip away the color molecules, resulting in dullness and premature color fading. To preserve your hair color, look for shampoos specifically formulated for color-treated hair that are sulfate-free.

  3. Scalp Irritation: Some people may experience scalp irritation, redness, or itching when using shampoos containing sulfates. This is especially true for individuals with sensitive skin or pre-existing scalp conditions like eczema or psoriasis. Switching to sulfate-free shampoos can help alleviate these issues.

Hope this was helpful!

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