Does sulfate free shampoo really make a difference? Find out what different stylists think.

shampoo and conditioner bottle

Going Sulfate Free

Although sulfates are still widely used, Hammer says a lot of companies are interested in moving away from them.

The marketing mantra of “wash, rinse, repeat” was firmly embedded in the mind of Kelly Foreman, until she realized how sulfates were stripping her color-treated, curly locks. Two years ago, she launched her own sulfate-free product line called Mop Top.

“Curly hair, by its nature, is dry anyway, and you have to be very careful with the chemicals you put on it,” says Foreman. “The lack of moisture is the direct result of using a surfactant too frequently.”

Forman’s Gentle Shampoo does contain coconut-derived surfactants, which she says are much more gentle than sulfates. Her basic recommendation is to start with a sulfate-free shampoo every seven to 10 days — and then adjust based on how your tresses respond.

“I personally shampoo once every three to four weeks,” Foreman says, “The rest of the time I just use conditioner.”

Based on customer feedback, Foreman is now reducing the amount of surfactants in the shampoo even further — cutting them in half. She also plans to launch a zero-lather cleanser this fall because of customer demand.

“It’s an exciting time to be in this industry,” notes Inga Tritt, who launched The Original Little Sprout in 2003 as a sulfate-free hair and skin-care line for children.

The idea for her own product line emerged after a frustrating search for sulfate-free products that actually worked on her young daughter, Maya’s, curly locks.

“I used to use products I found in the health-food store because I didn’t want to use anything I had to worry about on Maya," Tritt says. "But they didn’t perform. They left her hair fuzzy and dry.”

Tritt’s sulfate-free shampoos do contain some foaming agents, but they’re derived from beets, coconuts, almonds and sunflowers.

“For curly hair, a sulfate-free shampoo is a win-win because not only is your hair going to look much better, your frizz is going to be considerably reduced,” says Tritt, who is introducing a sulfate-free shampoo for adults this fall.

“A lot of times, with traditional shampoos, they will add extra mineral oil, petroleum oil derivatives or by-products to help counteract the drying effect of sulfates," Tritt says. "But you don’t want to feel that residue. People are starting to get it. They’re becoming more savvy consumers and educating themselves.”

Take Jessicurl’s Jessica McGuinty — yet another example of an educated curly whose relentless research resulted in her own line of sulfate-free products.

“I was spending all kinds of money and doing my hair over and over again and trying to get it to look right and not understanding why it didn’t," says McGuinty, who launched Jessicurl four years ago. "Well, there’s no way it could look right when I was stripping it with sulfates, then loading it with silicones to calm the frizz that sulfates cause."

The Jessicurl line includes two sulfate-free cleansers that contain more gentle surfactants derived mostly from sugar and coconut. Their Hair Cleansing Cream has a minimal amount of lather for dry, coarse, or color-treated hair, and the Gentle Lather Shampoo provides a bit more lather for fine hair that tends to easily become weighed down.

As the demand for sulfate-free products has encouraged the growth of small, independent companies like Jessicurl, the giants in the beauty industry also have begun paying attention. In one notable example, just last month, beauty industry behemoth L’Oreal acquired PureOlogy — known for its sulfate-free shampoos.

“Businesses that are responding and going green are making the money,” Tritt says. “The ones that are still old school are going to fall behind really fast.”

“It’s not political at this point, it’s moral,” adds Massey. “It’s about getting real and if something doesn’t feel good, it isn’t. Since when was it acceptable to have mediocre blow-fried, dehydrated hair? At what point did you look in the mirror and say, ‘This is okay?’ It’s not acceptable. There are solutions now, and it’s really going to make a difference when you really want to make a difference. It’s up to you.”