Sulfates are synthetic cleansing agents that create the lather you see and feel in shampoos. Labeled as “Sodium Laureth Sulfate” or “Sodium Lauryl Sulfate,” these harsh detergents are not only completely unnecessary given the more natural ingredients that are perfectly viable replacement options, but they are also known irritants and unsafe for us and the environment we live in.
Thankfully, more hair care lines (salon professional and generic) are getting on board the sulfate-free train, taking the movement from “just a fad” to standard practice in the industry. Kevin.Murphy’s whole product range boasts a sulfate-free stance and other lines like Kerastase, Pureology, Redken and Bumble & Bumble have various shampoos within their range that are completely sans sulfate as well. In the drugstore, you can find L’Oreal Paris and Living Proof with viable options as well. You can currently find sulfate-free hair care products from the top shelf to the bargain bin and everywhere else in between in today’s market.
As a hairdresser and a conscious consumer, this revolution is incredibly exciting to me. For our health and for our environment, the switch to sustainable beauty is a huge step forward and the science behind it all is pretty telling. The molecules in synthetic sulfates are actually quite small and able to penetrate into skin, which is what causes them to strip out color, dry out the scalp and hair and cause itching. Especially for consumers with skin issues, these detergents can be really irritating. And because they can sting if accidentally rinsed into the eyes, they aren’t the safest ingredients either.
On a more cosmetic level, sulfates also pull out the natural oils your scalp produces and cause your hair to rely on the synthetic sulfates instead of your own sebum in between washes. That’s why you end up with “greasy hair” and have to wash everyday. All of this just means more money to the sulfate using line, more upkeep in between and a perceived need to wash every single day. It’s simply an unnecessary cycle.
Instead of sulfates, products are moving toward naturally derived surfactants such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate. That way, you get a bit of that lathering that you’ve come to love, but it’s all from a natural source like coconut oil. The molecules of these surfactants are larger, meaning they do not penetrate the skin and cause issues like cheaper synthetic sulfates. But they still work well enough to rid your hair of the surface level dirt and buildup. And because they are derived from natural oils, they make the hair look extra shiny and healthy.
In addition to these great reasons to switch over to sulfate-free living, there’s also an environmental aspect to it all. The EPA has found that 1,4 dioxane (which contaminates sulfates that go through the ethoxylation process of manufacturing) is not only “not expected to biodegrade”, but it is also proven to cause eczema over time. When tested at a high dose in the drinking water of lab rats, there was a high mortality rate, decreased weight gains and kidney and liver changes. It’s also directly listed as a “probable human carcinogen”, again, according to the EPA. And while low levels in our water sources haven’t been found to affect various land and marine animals, “long-term exposure may increase tumor incidence.” And perhaps most importantly, The Clean Air Act of 1990 lists 1,4 dioxane as a “hazardous air pollutant.”
While various agencies and scientists have disputed whether sulfates do in fact harm us directly, this information from the EPA lays it out that any shampoo going through the ethoxylation process is not good for us, the environment or animals. And that 1,4 dioxane is present in any shampoo where “Sodium Laureth Sulfate” is listed, according to this statement by David Pollock, a leading chemist in the beauty industry.
For me, the choice is completely clear. I would much rather use sulfate-free beauty products derived from more natural ingredients and not take the risk of harming myself or the environment, in addition to the many cosmetic reasons why sulfates are more harm than good. And because I’m meeting more women in my chair who feel the same way and are voicing their concerns through their words and their dollars with what they purchase, I truly believe that the sulfate-free movement is not only here to stay, but well on its way to being the only option.
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