The Science Behind Sulfates

When it comes to hair care, we’ve heard the buzzwords—sulfates, phthalates, and parabens. Many articles talk about choosing paraben free or sulfate free products when shopping for hair products. But, do we know what these words actually mean? In an effort to make conscious, cleaner swaps, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. That’s where we come in. We caught up with our head of Research and Development about sulfates to answer the common question of “is sulfate bad for your hair?”.

What Are Sulfates?

In the context of personal care products, they’re very efficient cleansing agents. Sulfates are actually salts commonly found in our environment. They consist of a sulfur atom and four oxygen atoms. When we refer to sulfates in personal care products (like shampoos), we’re referring to the combination of salts and fatty acids.

They were introduced into personal care products in the 1930s, however, science shows that not all sulfates are good for you.

Types of Sulfates in Hair Products

We only offer a sulfate free shampoo, but the most commonly used sulfates are ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). You can often find these sulfates in shampoo ingredients or other hair care products like conditioner.

Are Sulfates Bad for Hair?

Is sulfate bad for hair? There’s no definitive answer (and there’s a lot of misinformation out there). In shampoos, they can be not-so-good for you. When they’re used in shampoos, sulfates are very efficient cleansers—maybe a little too efficient—and can pull a lot of natural oil from hair and skin. They’re so good at cleaning that they can actually strip your natural hair of its natural oils and make it feel rough, dry, and brittle. They can also cause dryness and scalp irritation, and are sometimes referred to as harsh sulfates or harmful sulfates. For that reason, we choose to make sulfate-free shampoos and hair products—like dry scalp treatments—because we believe there’s a gentler but effective way to clean hair.

Not all sulfates are bad. When they are used in conditioners in combination with other molecules, they can actually help make hair smoother, softer, and visibly healthier. In this case, it’s wrong to say they are not good for your hair. That’s why we use the beneficial ones. They make hair softer and smoother to the touch, and they help dramatically reduce breakage from combing and styling. Sulfates in conditioners and treatments do not damage chemical treatments or hair color. In this case, all you have to worry about is staying away from sulfate shampoo products but not necessarily all hair products. 

Good Sulfates

When sulfates are combined with other molecules to form hair conditioners, they can be very beneficial. Examples include behentrimonium methosulfate. This type of sulfate does not strip hair and is good for conditioning and detangling.

Do Living Proof Products Contain Sulfates?

Our shampoo formulation was innovated by biotech scientists who were fed up with traditional hair care products. That’s why we created a shampoo that’s free of the bad ingredients and only contains the good! All of our lathering shampoos, including our dry shampoo, are sulfate free. We have identified mild, non-sulfate alternatives which lather exceptionally well and gently clean hair. Those ingredients are isethionates, betaines and sugar-based cleansers called glucosides.

So, Should I Go Sulfate-Free?

That’s up to you. We recommend staying away from the “bad” or “harsh sulfates”—SLS, ALS, and SLES—found in shampoos. But it’s more about finding products with the best ingredients that work for your hair type than trying to avoid all sulfates entirely. The purpose of any cleanser is to remove (or strip) oil and dirt from hair, so products with and without sulfates can do this depending on the formulation or your skin’s reaction. Just because a hair care product says “sulfate free” doesn’t mean it won’t strip hair of oil or irritate the skin.

If you’re looking for a sulfate free shampoo that provides ingredients that truly benefit your hair, no matter what hair type you have, you’re in the right place. Browse our shampoos to find a hair care product you can’t miss out on in your rinse and repeat.

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Living Proof Review Team

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