One of the cornerstones of the Curly Girl Method is avoiding shampoos and cleansers that contain sulfates. As a result of the rise in popularity of embracing naturally curly hair, many product manufacturers have responded with shampoos, cowashes, and other cleansers that are labeled as "sulfate free" to meet textured hair demands.
But in truth, many products labeled "sulfate-free" contain sulfates still -- just not SLS or ALS, which are the two harshest. There are more gentle sulfates that have been developed, and some SLS containing shampoos even have other ingredients that soften the blow of the sulfates.
But are sulfates really that bad? Or is there a possibility that the concern around them is a little overblown? Let's explore 4 popular claims and whether they hold any weight:
Sulfates Cause Cancer
There is no evidence that supports any claims that sulfates are carcinogenic in nature. Sulfates are generally recognized as being safe, which explains their presence in shampoos, body washes, detergents, and more. I personally believe people confuse sulfates with parabens, which are believed to have some definitive links to breast cancer.
Sulfates Cause Damage and Dryness
Jc of The Natural Haven explains this point perfectly, in terms of causing damage:
"Yes but then again so does water, combing, sunlight......pretty much everything except living in a dark room and never touching your hair."
The truth is, even rinsing your hair with water causes some damage in the form of protein loss. Sulfates such as SLS and ALS cause more protein loss, but not substantially more. You're likely to cause more damage to your hair by how you handle it, than by using sulfate containing shampoos.
As far as dryness is concerned, sulfates absolutely are responsible for making the hair feel dry. The primary function of sulfates such as SLS are to clarify, ridding the hair and scalp of oils, product buildup, and dirt. The end result is that your hair will feel stripped.
Sulfates Are Irritating to the Scalp
As clarifying agents and surfactants, sulfates are designed to strip the hair and scalp of natural oils. Because of this, the scalp retains less water/moisture and becomes dry and itchy. But at the same time, the sulfates may not be to blame for a dry, tight, or itchy scalp. Any number of the other ingredients in your shampoo from conditioning agents to preservatives can be responsible for scalp irritation.
Sulfates Cause Frizz
Curl and coil clumping is encouraged with moisture. Sulfates like SLS and ALS strip the hair of natural moisture, and we all know what dried out hair does -- frizz like there's no tomorrow. Luckily, a good deep conditioner can help correct those frizzies.
The Bottom Line
Are sulfates harmful, health-wise? No. Can they cause a little drama on your scalp, and dry out your hair? Absolutely. Should you banish them from your regimen? That's up to you. I make a regular habit of shampooing my hair with non-SLS shampoos and low-sudsing co-washes because I use a lot of styling and defining products that can build up over time, and make conditioning less effective if not properly removed. And every 4-6 weeks, I use an SLS containing shampoo to clarify my hair and scalp.
Non-SLS Gentle Shampoos
tgin Moisture Rich Sulfate Free Shampoo
Ouidad Curl Co-Wash
Alaffia African Black Soap
DevaCurl Low Poo
Shea Moisture Yucca and Baobab Thickening Shampoo
Lawrence Ray Concepts Complete Cleanse Shampoo
Ouidad Superfruit Renewal Clarifying Cream Shampoo