Sulfates – 7 Reasons They Are Bad For Your Hair


Sulfates – Why are these chemicals bad for my hair? If you ask this question, you’re going to discover that the answer is quite surprising. An increasing number of people are beginning to learn the various negative aspects to using hair shampoos and conditioners that contain sulfates.

What Are Sulfates?
The answer to the question of why are sulfates (SLS) bad for hair demands a little background first. Take a quick look at the ingredients list for the shampoo you’re currently using.

The more you discover about the question of why are sulfates bad for hair, the more likely you are to begin to wonder about great and affordable sulfate free alternatives.

While these alternatives to shampoos containing sulfate do indeed exist, a little education on the subject is still essential.

If you notice that one of those ingredients is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), then that’s where your sulfates are coming from.

These chemicals are quite commonly found in not only shampoos, but in a host of other cleaning/hygiene products, as well (such as toothpastes and soaps). Why a company would choose to include a chemical that contains sulfates is not a difficult concept to understand.

They also act as a foaming agent, are cheap to include in the products, and are capable of removing that unpleasant-feeling oily buildup in your hair. There are other reasons as to why sulfates are prevalent in your current shampoo, but those are certainly the main ones.

With all this in mind, you are in a better position to ask yourself why are sulfates bad for hair. There are lots of high quality sulfate free shampoos and hair conditioners on the market these days.

Are Sulfates Bad For Hair?

On the subject of whether or not sulfates (Sulfate Formula: SO42-) are bad for your hair, an increasing amount of information points to the following fact: Sulfates are not good for your hair.

While the severity of this fact can vary from one person to the next, there are a number of reasons as to why sulfates are not good for your hair:

  • Chemicals containing sulfates are known as surfactants. What this means is that the chemicals in your shampoo that contain sulfates are largely designed to degrade the surface tension for liquids, in order to make it easier for them to be spread around.
  • Sulfates have a strong potential to be an irritant to your hair, skin, and even to your eyes. The degree to which this can be the case varies from one person to the next. Some experience very minor irritations through the use of shampoos containing sulfates. Others have severe chemical allergic reactions.
  • Sulfates are capable of stripping your hair of essential oils. This can lead to the feeling that your hair has become extremely dried out, both in terms of its appearance and how it feels to the touch.
  • Continuous use of shampoos that contain sulfates have the potential to cause long-term damage to your hair. This damage can be realized in terms of its appearance, as well in terms of the overall health of the hair itself.
  • A 0.5% concentrate of the chemical that contains sulfates in a bottle of shampoo has been proven to have the potential to act as an irritant. A little research on the subject of chemical concentrations in shampoos will show you that a number of shampoos have concentrations of chemicals containing sulfates that range between 10%-30%.
  • Some of the consequences that can result from using shampoos containing sulfates include irritation of the eyes, irritation of the scalp, tangled up hair, hair that feels frizzy or fuzzy, or hair that has become split. In some cases, the consequences can even include swelling of your hands, your face, and your arms.

These are some of the reasons why shampoos that contain sulfates are bad for your hair.

Sulfate Free Shampoos
With all of these reasons as to what shampoos containing sulfates can do to your hair, you’re likely going to start to wonder if it’s perhaps time to start looking at alternative shampoo products. Fortunately, these alternatives do indeed exist.

Not only do these alternatives exist, but they can be found in a variety of different places. The most important thing to consider with sulfate free shampoos is the fact that the best of them are going to leave your hair feeling softer and cleaner than it ever has before.

Best of all is the way it’s going to do this without causing any particular irritation to your hair. When it comes to the subject of sulfate free shampoos, it’s important to look for natural ingredients.

Organic shampoos can bring a lot of benefits to the table. Unfortunately, certain alternative shampoos have simply replaced sulfates with other damaging chemicals. As long as you focus your search on sulfate free shampoos that contain natural ingredients, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

It’s true that sulfate free shampoos are a little costlier, but the benefits are such that you’re probably not going to care.

More About Dangers Of Sulfates In Shampoos and Hair Care Products

– The Products We Use Need to be Safe:
The question has to cross everyone’s mind at some point: How safe are the everyday products that I use? What are they made of and do any of these contain substances having health-hazards that I am not aware of?

According to the Safe Shopper’s Bible, consumers have an inalienable right to know the ingredients in the products they use daily, and any hazards associated with those ingredients.

Government and industry have greatly failed to protect consumer health adequately; mostly by failing to fully inform consumers about the hazardous ingredients used in household products, cosmetics and foods.

Further, not a single cosmetic company warns consumers of the presence of carcinogens in its products; despite that several common cosmetic ingredients are known carcinogens, or they contain contaminants which are carcinogenic precursors (Steinman, David & Epstein, Samuel S., 1995).

– What about Sulfates in Shampoos?
Questions have arisen concerning the safety of certain ingredients of shampoos and hair care products; specifically the sulfate products used as surfactants or foaming agents in these products.

There are three different sulfate products used in shampoos:

  • (1) sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
  • (2) sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
  • (3) ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS)

These are explained in more detail below:

– Sodium Lauryl Sulfate:
SLS is an organo-sulfate compound synthesized from either coconut or palm oil, reacted with other chemicals to make the final product. It has many applications in detergents and cleaning products, and can be found in toothpastes, body wash, face wash, soap, shampoos, shaving creams and bubble bath formulations.

In more concentrated forms it is used in industrial cleaners, such as engine degreasers, carwash soaps, and floor cleaners (“Sodium dodecyl sulfate,” 2015).

According to the National Institutes of Health Hazardous Substance Database (HSDB), SLS can produce allergic sensitivity reactions on the skin; especially for those suffering from eczematous dermatitis.

It also is said to be the most common source of eye-irritation caused by commercial shampoos (HSDB, 2000, January 29).

– Sodium Laureth Sulfate:
SLES is also a detergent and surfactant found in many personal care products. SLES is produced similarly to SLS, but without an ethoxylation step. (“Sodium laureth sulfate,” 2015).

Sulfates are used in almost all beauty products.

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut at

According to the HSDB, SLES can dry out the skin and like SLS, it is a common eye irritant found in shampoos (HSDB, 2002, November 8).

– Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate:
ALS is a very high-foaming surfactant found primarily in shampoos and body-wash products (“Ammonium lauryl sulfate,” 2015). According to the HSDB, ALS is a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant, and it also poses significant percutaneous toxicity when applied to the skin (HSDB, 1995, May 11).

What is Sodium Trideceth Sulfate?
Take a moment to think about all of the things that you would expect from a face cleanser, soap, or any other type of disinfecting agent. First, you’d want to make sure that the products you were buying helped to get rid of dirt and grime, and second, you’d expect them to be soft on your skin. With the use of sodium trideceth sulfate, cosmetic enthusiasts can keep their makeup brushes and their skin sufficiently clean every time that they cleanse them.

Disinfecting Agent:
One of the primary uses of sodium trideceth sulfate is as a disinfecting agent as it is typically referred to as a type of alcohol. In most formulas you will find that this ingredient is included alongside sodium laureth sulfate and many other cleansing agents. Their main job is to make sure that the surface they are applied to is sufficiently disinfected after application. Many people attribute sodium trideceth sulfate to the reduction of acne and other skin care concerns with consistent use of a certain type of cleanser.

Foaming Abilities:
Imagine what it would be like to use a face cleanser or a body wash that never foamed. You wouldn’t have the same experience of feeling as clean after a shower as you normally would. Many ingredients including sodium trideceth sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are useful for creating a great foaming sensation while you are cleansing your skin. The foaming not only gives you the idea of being cleaner, but it also helps to pick up more dirt and grime off of any surface so it is surely left cleaner.

Adding Softness:
You might find it hard to believe that a certain type of chemical can be responsible for improving the softness of your skin, though it is important to note that many manufacturers add sodium trideceth sulfate to remedy against the harsh properties that other alcohols can bring to a surface.

For example, some types of alcohols can purify your skin, but without the right soothing agents this could cause your skin to become very dry and irritated. With the help of certain components including sodium trideceth sulfate, the softness in your skin will be returned.

Breaking Hard Water:
It’s also important to find cleansers with sodium trideceth sulfate if you live in an area that is accustomed to hard water. Hard water is known to have an array of minerals that can make your hair and body feel heavy, oily, and unclean. It helps to break down the minerals so you feel fresher after every washing experience.

What is Sodium Myreth Sulfate?
With more people becoming more aware of the ingredients in their favorite products, it has lead many consumers to consider whether the items they are using are safe or not. In comparison to a variety of other ingredients, sodium myreth sulfate isn’t one of the worst components of a formula and it helps to provide additional disinfecting and foaming properties. A variety of shampoos, body washes, and face washes have sodium myreth sulfate in their composition and you may or may not avoid it based on your personal preferences.

Understanding Organic Compounds
If you do some research into sodium myreth sulfate you’ll learn that it is made out of organic compounds. It is important to note that just because you see the term “organic” doesn’t mean that it’s from plant-based derivatives.

Instead, sodium myreth sulfate is created out of molecules that have been taken from carbon instead of an inorganic compound such as cyanide. There have been many researchers that have stated the classification of compounds between organic and inorganic can be confusing for anyone that is not a specialist in chemistry.

Acting as a Detergent
The main purposes of sodium myreth sulfate are to act as a detergent and help to get a variety of surfaces clean. All of the compounds within the molecule will disinfect a variety of different materials ranging from clothing to your skin. You can typically find this ingredient in many different types of cleansers ranging from laundry detergent to acne clearing face wash. Much like different types of alcohols, it helps to get rid of excess dirt and grime.

Inexpensive to Use
One of the main reasons as to why more manufacturers are beginning to cut out different ingredients but keeping sodium myreth sulfate is because it is an inexpensive ingredient that they can use to make their products appear to be better. Many consumers assume that the more something foams, the better it is at cleaning a surface which is why sodium myreth sulfate is so popular amongst shampoo, soap, and toothpaste manufacturers.

Improving Foaming Properties
As mentioned, foaming is one of the most common effects that you’ll get when you use a product that contains sodium myreth sulfate. In fact, without the combination of this ingredient and others such as sodium trideceth sulfate, you wouldn’t have any foaming at all from detergents and cleansers. It is a great way to make consumers feel like they are getting cleaner.

Why Should We Be Concerned About Shampoos or Cleansers?
Putting chemicals on your skin or scalp may actually be worse than eating them. When you eat something, the enzymes in your saliva and stomach help to break it down and flush it out of your body. However, when you put substances on your skin, they may be absorbed directly into your bloodstream without being modified by the digestion process.

These can bio accumulate in your tissues and over time, affect your health at some point. Many of the same poisons that pollute the environment are also lurking in the jars and bottles that line your bathroom shelves. We can be at risk from products we have always assumed are safe (, 2010, July 13).

Your skin is much more than just a covering for your body: It is your body’s largest organ. It has many different functions, such as:

  • (1) serving as your body’s primary defense against infections;
  • (2) eliminating wastes through perspiration;
  • (3) providing a protective barrier to viruses and bad bacteria;
  • (4) providing a friendly habitat for good bacteria;
  • (5) maintaining body temperature by controlling heat flow between you and the external environment;
  • (6) sealing in moisture to help maintain your body’s fluid balance;
  • (7) producing vitamin D for your body; and
  • (8) sending external sensory perceptions (i.e., hot/cold or hard/soft) back to your brain so that you can properly react to the conditions around you.

It is therefore imperative that you give your skin the same thoughtful care you give your diet, because much of what goes “on” you ends up going “in” you (, 2010, July 13).

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), research studies on SLS have shown links to

  • (1) irritation of the skin and eyes;
  • (2) organ toxicity;
  • (3) developmental/reproductive toxicity
  • (4) neurotoxicity and biochemical or cellular changes; and
  • (5) possible mutations and cancer.

The EWG claims that actual health risks will vary based on the level of exposure to the product’s ingredients and the health and susceptibility of the individual (, 2010, July 13).

The worry about SLS/SLES/ALS intake, either orally or through the skin, concerns the gradual, cumulative effects of long-term, repeated exposures through long use of products containing these chemicals.

The lack of long-term studies on the chemicals in these products don’t provide an adequate picture concerning the long-term effects of exposures to these substances (, 2010, July 13).

– The Products Can Contain Impurities
The synthesis of SLS/SLES/ALS can also result in toxic impurities developing during product formulation. According to the EWG, ethylene dioxide is a precursor used in the formulation process that can form impurities, and is a possible human carcinogen, along with being an immunotoxicant, an organ system toxicant, and a developmental/reproductive toxicant.

Another impurity is 1,4-Dioxane, which the EWG says is a possible human carcinogen, an immunotoxicant, and an organ system toxicant. Nitrosamines are yet another impurity, labeled by the EWG as a possible human carcinogen, as well as being an organ system toxicant, and a developmental/reproductive toxicant (, 2010, July 13).

According to a Cosmetic Ingredient Review published in 1983 in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology, SLS and ALS appear to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use, followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin afterwards. The concentrations of these substances in products intended for prolonged contact with the skin should never exceed 1% (Moore, A.F., 1983).

In conclusion, people should be aware of the possible toxicity and health hazards posed by exposure to SLS/SLES/ALS. If you intend to use shampoos containing these surfactants, look for products containing no more than a 1% concentration.

Alternatively, stick with organic shampoos which have 100% vegetarian ingredients, and which contain no harsh preservatives, no synthetic colors or fragrances, no SLS/SLES/ALS, or any other synthetically derived chemicals in their formulation.

Ammonium lauryl sulfate. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

Hazardous Substance Database. (2000, January 29). Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Retrieved from

Hazardous Substance Database. (1995, May 11). Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate. Retrieved from

Hazardous Substance Database. (2002, November 8). Sodium Dodecylpoly(Oxyethylene) Sulfate. Retrieved from (2010, July 13). Deadly and Dangerous Shampoos, Toothpastes, and Detergents:

Could 16,000 Studies Be Wrong About SLS? Retrieved from

Moore, A.F. (1983).Final Report on the Safety of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate. J Am Coll Tox, 2(7), 127-181. Retrieved from

Sodium dodecyl sulfate. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

Sodium laureth sulfate. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

Steinman, David & Epstein, Samuel S. (1995). The Safe Shopper’s Bible: A Consumer’s Guide to Nontoxic Household Products, Cosmetics, and Food. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.