Let’s Get Geeky – Sulfates

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By now, you’ve probably seen or heard the words “sulfate-free” when shopping for shampoo. But, if you are like most of my clients, you may not know what sulfates are and why they should be avoided.

Sulfates are surfactants added to shampoos to clean hair and to create lather. All surfactants contain molecules with hydrophobic (water hating) and hydrophilic (water loving) components. The hydrophobic side attracts dirt and oils and, through the act of agitation (lathering), causes them to pull away from the hair. Then the hydrophilic end helps rinse them away.

The problem is that most of the commonly used sulfates are not the most gentle detergents. One widely used surfactant, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), is even used in higher concentrations to degrease car parts. For many people, sulfates are fine to use but they should be avoided if your hair or scalp is dry, if you have eczema, if your skin is oily, if your hair is thinning, or if your hair is chemically treated or colored. You may also wish to avoid sulfates if your are environmentally conscious because these chemicals are harmful and do not degrade easily. Ingredients to avoid include sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium myreth sulfate, and TEA laureth sulfate.

Luckily, many shampoo manufacturers now have sulfate-free options. Look for gentle, naturally derived cleansers like cocamidapropyl betaine, sorbitan laurate, sorbitan palmitate, or sorbitan stearate. I’m currently partial to Paul Mitchell’s Awapuhi Wild Ginger Moisturizing Lather Shampoo and Forever Blond Shampoo. For men, I highly recommend Mitch Double Hitter.

Double Hitter produces a great lather but many sulfate-free shampoos to do not. Rest assured, gentle surfactants are effective at pulling away loose dirt and oils from hair without unneccesary stripping. I often compare this tactile change to a similar shift in skincare. There was a time when facial soaps lathered up and left our faces squeaky clean. We now know that this approach is too harsh for most skin types. Just like with your facial cleanser, switching to a more gentle shampoo is an adjustment but it’s well worth it for the health of your hair and scalp.

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