Forget What You Know: Sulfates Aren't Always Bad for Curly Hair
Two experts break down when you should and shouldn't use the controversial ingredient.
If you have naturally textured hair, you know that styling and caring for it can be a challenge. That's why we created The Curl Corner, a monthly column that celebrates the versatility of textured hair. Here, we cover everything from how to properly style your coils to how to protect them—and include expert tips for curl patterns of all types.
Sulfates have gotten a bad rap, especially when it comes to curly hair, and we'd be lying if we said that it wasn't particularly warranted. Sulfates are known for being an aggressive detergent frequently used in shampoos, and years of research on natural hair has unearthed the possible damage that the ion can have on curls. So, with all this research, why are sulfates still so heavily debated? Ahead, check out what two curl experts have to say about sulfates and why it may be okay to take them for a spin—all while also discovering some better-for-hair alternatives to turn to when your hair needs a deep clean.
What are sulfates?
"'Sulfates' is a pretty broad term, but they can be synthetic or they can be derived from plants," curl expert and Hairstory ambassador April Kayganich says. She explains that sulfates are commonly found in hair and cleaning products because of their foaming and bubbling properties. "Sulfates are known degreasers," says Kam Davis, CEO and founder of vegan haircare brand Nylah's Naturals. "They're really good at breaking down grease and fat molecules so that they can be washed away by water."
Why are sulfates controversial?
"If you look at the structure of curly hair, the cuticle is shaped in a way that doesn't make it easy for the natural oils from our scalp to reach the ends," Kayganich explains, as curl patterns make it difficult for the moisture to glide down the hair. She says that because sulfates are derived from salt and acid, they can be very drying, which is why naturalistas in particular tend to stay away from them. Davis concurs: "Natural hair requires the scalp's sebum, oils, and moisture to sit on the shaft of the hair since it's necessary for moisture retention. That necessary moisture helps reduce the friction amongst strands so that they don't intertwine and tangle."
"A sulfate shampoo is really good at its ability to clean," she says. "But as a consequence of that, it strips away the hair's natural moisture from the hair shaft and scalp, and that can have adverse effects on the hair." Davis says that when someone has a curly texture, the hair grows up rather than down, which further emphasizes Kayaganich's theory about the structure of curls making it harder for emollients to pass through. "It's really important that naturals maintain as much moisture as possible, and when you have a powerful clarifying shampoo that contains sulfates, it can make doing it that much harder." That said, if sulfates are used, it's imperative that moisture is restored with a hydrating mask or treatment immediately afterwards.
So when is it okay to use sulfates?
Both experts maintain that the best option is a clarifying shampoo without sulfates. However, that requires prevention. "You have to make sure your products are free from any silicones, heavy waxes, or thick oils to ensure you are not getting excess buildup on the hair and scalp," Kayaganich says. If you find yourself frequently using heavier products, though, that occasional power cleansing may come in handy.
"If you're a person with natural hair and you've used a very thick grease that has a tendency to stand on the hair and has a very thick viscosity, a clarifying product with sulfates would be acceptable," Davis says. But if you can, steer clear. "I wouldn't recommend frequent sulfate use since there are enough products on the market that are both sulfate-free and very cleansing."
That said, the key to properly cleansed hair on wash day is keeping your product use to a minimum. However, if that's just not possible, a little bit of sulfates may go a long way. Just don't make it a habit, and be sure to moisturize immediately after.