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Everything you need to know about sulphates

Verity Douglas
Writer and expert6 years ago
View Verity Douglas's profile

Sulphates - or sulfates - have been steadily acquiring a fairly negative name for themselves within the hair care realm. With speculation rife as to their cancer-causing capabilities (rumours which are, as yet, unsubstantiated), many brands are offering sulphate-free formulas. Meaning, they're developing cleansers without the lather-inducing detergents known as sodium laureth sulphate, sodium lauryl sulphate and ammonium lauryl sulphate (SLS, SLES and ALS), among others.

So, what are sulphates and why are they necessary? Sulphates have long been added to all manner of cleansing products - {shampoo}, toothpaste, {body wash} and even facial cleansers - because of their ability to emulsify oil and greasy substances, creating a lather that leaves hair, teeth, skin (whatever) feeling über-squeaky clean.

They're derived from sulphur (which does occur naturally, but in this case is usually synthesised from petrolatum) and lauryl alcohol, which comes primarily from coconut oil. This basic reaction can produce hundreds of different sulphates, but 'sodium laureth' and 'sodium lauryl' are those you'll see listed most often.

The general consensus among research scientists is that sulphates are totally fit for purpose however, there is also some evidence to suggest that sulphates can irritate sensitive {scalps}, cause frizziness in thick/curly hair and accelerate (artificial) colour fade. Sulphates also provoke questions about sustainability. Petrolatum is (obviously) running out, so many companies are going 'sulphate-free' for eco-reasons (something we totally 'dig').

{rahua}, {Pureology}, {Living Proof}, {Briogeo} and {OUAI Haircare} are proudly sulphate-free, making them ideal for those who prefer to take care of their hair the more natural way, whilst doing the world a huge favour. That said, if you're new to the 'no sulphates' thing, be warned that you will probably notice a lesser lather - this makes no difference to the cleaning action of the shampoo, but it is somehow less psychologically satisfying.

There is still a lot of space for debate surrounding sulphates and, as with everything, we advocate freedom of choice in all things. We're not completely convinced by the sulphate scaremongers, but appreciate that there are many things we did in the last twenty years, that we certainly wouldn't do now... What are your thoughts on sulphates? We'd love to hear your stance.


Verity Douglas
Writer and expert
View Verity Douglas's profile
Cult Beauty’s Content Editor and a Cult Beauty OG, Verity loves nothing more than the marriage of language and lip balm. A quintessential Libran, she’s a self-professed magpie for luxury ‘must-haves' and always pursuing the new and the niche — from the boujee-est skin care to cutting-edge tech. Balancing an urge to stop the clock with her desire to embrace the ageing process (and set a positive example for her daughter), Verity's a retinol obsessive and will gladly share her thoughts about the time-defying gadgets, masks and treatments worth the splurge...