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Experts differ as to whether cleansing hair with sulfates is a good thing or a bad thing. We present ideas, thoughts and opinions on both sides of the issue.

The Truth About Sulfates

You’ve thrown out your flat-iron, finally found the right curly cut, and learned how to style your spirals. So why are your locks still frizzy, dull and dehydrated? And why have your freshly colored tresses turned brassy in a matter of days?

Curl-centric stylists say the answer may be found on the back of your shampoo bottle.

“You have to turn the bottle around and look for sodium laurel — or laureth — sulfate; it’s in the ingredient list,” says curl guru Lorraine Massey, who started her own line of sulfate-free Deva No-Poo and Deva Low-Poo cleansers in 1999. “If you see that in there, then put it down. That’s one is the harshest [detergents] of them all and just strips the hair of any vitality.”

Although many traditional shampoos contain sulfates (which are a classification of foaming agents also known as surfactants), curl experts say these harsh detergents steal the moisture that your tresses so desperately need.

“We’ve been addicted to lather, but you don’t need synthetic substances to cleanse your hair or wash your body, for that matter,” Massey says. “Sulfates harden the hair. They irritate the hair cuticle and dry it out. It’s like washing your hair with salt.”

Originally, soap and shampoo were similar products in that they both contained surfactants. The first commercial shampoo, Breck, was introduced in 1930 with thick, billowy lather. Over the decades, more sudsy shampoos emerged, as did the advice to make your hair “squeaky clean.”

Sodium laurel sulfate is quite irritating and can be rather drying to the skin, but companies have come up with milder versions like sodium laureth sulfate, says Jim Hammer, a cosmetics chemist and product development manager at Pharmasol Corp. in Easton, Mass. But with any detergent cleanser, the flip side of removing oils you don't want is that you also remove oils you do want, Hammer says.

The Downside of "Squeaky Clean" Hair

“Squeaky clean is a myth,” says Chaz Dean, celebrity stylist and founder of Wen Hair & Body Care products and Chaz Dean Studio in Hollywood, Calif. “People thought squeaky clean meant clean hair, but squeaky clean really equals stripped and dried-out hair.”

How does this happen? Sulfates create a dense lather that strips away sebum, the oily substance secreted by the sebaceous glands that prevent your hair from drying out. You’ll find sulfates in countless cleaning products — ranging from car cleaners to laundry and dishwashing detergents to shower gels and toothpaste. And, of course, shampoo.

“By cleansing your scalp [with sulfates] you’re robbing it of all the natural, essential oils and beneficial bacteria; you killed them and washed them down the drain,” says Dean, who launched zero-lather cleansing conditioners in the mid-1990s. “The bad and harmful bacteria replenish at a much more rapid pace than the beneficial ones. So you open yourself up to a dry, flaky and sensitive scalp and psoriasis because you stripped the beneficial bacteria and left a minefield open for the bad bacteria to have a field day.”

Dean began to realize the harshness of sulfates nearly two decades ago when he was in the early stages of his career, starting out as a colorist.

“At the time, I started putting vegetable color in my clients’ shampoos and sending them home with it,” Dean recalls. “That would help a little, but their hair still looked brassy. I then started to put it in the conditioner. But then the shampoo would strip the color back out. It was a vicious cycle. That’s when I knew I had to eliminate the lathering factor. The No. 1 reason the color was fading was because anything that lathers is going to strip.”

While shampoos contain about 8 to 10 percent detergents — a fraction of that sulfates — Hammer says cleansing conditioners use cationic surfactants, which contain softening and anti-static properties. They are technically surfactants and will cleanse the hair, but they're not a detergent in the classical sense—you won't see the foam as you would with shampoos. Cationic surfactants are more related to a conditioning agent, so they don't have the stripping effect of a normal shampoo.

A handful of hair-care companies and curl-centric stylists, like Massey and Dean, have been touting the benefits of sulfate-free cleansers for more than a decade. But many people have only just started to embrace them after the recent, intensified focus on the environment.

“People are becoming more responsible now, with global warming,” Dean says. “They are becoming more aware of what we’re doing to the environment and ourselves, and how we can change.”

But change can be uncomfortable. While curl experts see a shift toward sulfate-free products, they also still see plenty of resistance.

“Every person I encounter, even if they have interest, still has to be convinced about why and how this works,” Dean says. “They have to hear it over and over, until they’re finally ready to take the plunge and try it. People are afraid of change and shampoo has been around for so long that it’s just what people know.”

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