Should I Switch to Sulfate-Free Products?
Do you ever look at the side of a shampoo bottle and wonder at the words on the ingredients label? You probably don’t, but if you did, you’d notice some pretty unpronounceable stuff going on back there. Dimethicone, panthenol, parabens, sodium laureth sulfate…
What exactly are sulfates and what do they even do?
You may have even heard folks talk about the dangers of sulfates. “They use that stuff to clean carburetors!” Should you immediately head to your bathroom and dump it all out? You may wonder why you haven’t yet burned your whole face off if you’ve been using them your whole life and nothing’s happened… will it happen now that you know?
Terrific questions, all. Today, let’s dig into the world of sulfates and talk about what they do, why they’re included in products and what you should – and should not be worried about when you find them listed on a product label.
What Are Sulfates & What Do They Do?
Sulfates, especially organosulfates, are a common ingredient generally found in some of our cleaning products such as shampoo, hand and body wash and even toothpaste. When checking out a label, you’re looking for those long, high school chemistry sounding names, like sodium laurel sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. What exactly do they do?
The American College of Toxicology and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel claim that, “used primarily as a foaming agent, a sulfate combines with water to emulsify grease, dispersing it in the water so it can be washed away.”
The technical description goes like this, “Surfactants, such as sulfates, are compounds that lower surface tension between two liquids, between a gas and a solid or between a liquid and a solid. May act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents and dispersants.” What does that mean?
Basically, a surfactant like sodium laurel sulfate is what gets the gunk, grease and sebum out of our hair and off our face and hands. It bonds to the crap we collect on our skin and hair and loosens it up to be washed away by the water we make the lather with. Oh, and we can thank sulfates for the lather itself as well.
You may have heard that sulfates are bad, they cause cancer or they make your hair fall out, but is that fact or fiction?
OK, So Are Sulfates Actually Bad For Us?
Why all the nasty talk about sulfates? Like your weird black-sheep aunt, it seems like they’re still suffering from the bad reputation they got in the 70s. Back then, shampoos were made with something called ethanolamine lauryl sulfate, which “released carcinogenic nitrosamines,” carcinogenic meaning a substance that has the potential to cause cancer.
After companies realized how bad that ingredient was, it was banned and the current sodium laurel and laureth sulfates in products are declared non-carcinogenic by the American College of Toxicology and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review expert panel. Hooray!
Along with the 1970s poo-poo on hair suds, it seems a concerned citizen tried in ‘98 to warn/scare us all into tossing anything with the defamed ingredient because it would cause 1 in 3 of us cancer if we keep brushing our teeth and washing our digits and do’s.
Why would cosmetic companies sell products that are dangerous to us? Is it a big enough health issue to spend 15 minutes in the hair care aisle, reading teeny tiny print in search of more natural ingredients?
According to mythbusting fact-checkers on Snopes.com, the only thing we have to worry about with products that contain low amounts of sulfates is skin irritation and diarrhea – if you eat them, that is. (The US Food and Drug Administration declared it one ingredient that could cause this health risk.)
They can strip your hair of its essential oils and irritate your skin if you are especially sensitive. This is also why your eyes sting so much when you get shampoo in them.
According to the Journal of American College of Toxicology, sulfates are considered safe when they come in low concentrations or are used for short periods of time. For the unassuming lab rats they tested it on, they saw skin irritation, depression, laboured breathing, diarrhea and yes, death. Keep in mind, these results followed longer exposure than just washing their little rat hairs in a tiny rat shower and a concentration of 15%. If you plan on leaving your low concentration shampoo on for a few hours, you may experience some irritating side effects, but you could say the same thing for family dinner.
Yes, sulfates are found in the stuff they clean carburetors with, but at a much higher concentration than your shampoo and hand wash. Think about it like the difference between a beer and 120 proof moonshine. Both contain alcohol as an ingredient, but one is a pleasant addition to your night out and the other can make you feel like you’re consuming actual fire. See the difference?
Why Switch to Sulfate-Free Products?
According to Paula’s Choice website, there isn’t necessarily a huge difference between sulfate containing and sulfate-free products when it comes to being dangerous or getting you clean. Sulfate-free products don’t lather in the same way, but they still get the job done.
This article talks about the benefits of sulfate-free shampoos for folks with drier or curly hair, as they tend to be less harsh and for wee ones, the no tears options for cleansers and ‘poos tend to be sans sulfates as well, so another plus there. People with dry scalps or eczema may also want to make the switch.
If you want to try some recommended sulfate-free shampoos, Allure put together a yummy list for you. Check out these 14 sulfate-free shampoos if you want to make the switch and see if you notice the difference!
Seems like sulfates got a bad reputation back in the day – and it’s followed them into the 20th century. The truth is closer to normal – don’t use products in a way they were not meant to be used. Are you supposed to wash your eyeballs or leave shampoo or hand wash on all day, fervently rubbing it into your skin as if it will somehow clean off your dirt and bad habits? Definitely not!
At the end of the day, it’s up to you what you put in or on your own body! The best we can do is to stay informed on what exactly we are buying. Knowing what ingredients you seek out and which ones you want to avoid means you are taking control of your environment. Tell us if you tried both and whether you noticed a difference!