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

woman shampooing hair in shower

In Defense of Shampoo

Curl expert Christo of New York's Christo Fifth Avenue has built his entire career — and his Curlisto product line — around helping curlies maintain healthy hair. That is why he is very frustrated by what he calls the unfair "attack" on shampoos.

“I would never do anything to harm curly hair," says Christo. "Sulfates are just one small ingredient along with many other good ingredients, like proteins and amino acids, etc. You need them to cleanse your hair properly, remove the buildup and maintain the hygiene of the hair.

"There’s not one ingredient that harms the hair or is good for your hair. It’s the combination in a formula.”

Sulfates are a common detergent in shampoos, dating back to when the first bottle appeared on store shelves in the 1930s. Although a number of hair-care companies are opting not to include these detergents in their products today, some curl experts say the shift away from sulfates is nothing more than a gimmick.

Only a small fraction of the ingredients in shampoo are detergents, including sulfates, according to Jim Hammer, a cosmetics chemist and product development manager at Pharmasol Corp. in Easton, Mass. He says many shampoos also contain a combination of nurturing ingredients that will provide enhanced mildness, even in the presence of a sulfate.

“The word 'sulfate' has become part of a marketing scare, and there’s a lot of propaganda,” adds Jonathan Torch of Toronto’s Curly Hair Institute.

“You can’t just look at that one ingredient. I would never use anything that would irritate the scalp. When people say they have an itchy scalp, they’re not rinsing out the shampoo properly. You have to spend a lot of time getting the water all the way down to the root. I haven’t found anything better or that remotely comes close to [sulfates].”

Torch’s product line includes a Treatment Shampoo and a Silk Shampoo, both of which contain ammonium laurel sulfate.

“There may be a product with one drop of sulfate and 20 drops of silk amino acids to counteract anything that could happen from that one drop.” Torch says. “Concentration is important. Quality is important. All these things play into it. So it’s an art and it’s a science.”

Rather than skipping shampoo altogether, Christo emphasizes the importance of continuously feeding curly hair the moisture it needs.

“You’re going to gain a lot more by focusing on treating your hair with deep conditioners,” Christo says. “If you think you shouldn’t shampoo your hair at all, then you’re going to end up with no shine to your hair, and it will eventually cause damage to your hair.”

Shampoo is critical to cleansing the pores of the scalp and allowing the roots of your hair to breathe, according to Ouidad, owner of New York’s Ouidad Salon.

“If you don’t use shampoo to get rid of your own natural oils, not only does the hair become dull but the hair root starts dehydrating, and it starts shrinking,” Ouidad says. "The hair becomes weak.”

The key is moderation, say the curl experts. Shampoo once or twice a week rather then every day.

“It’s not going to damage your hair,” Christo adds. “It will bring the luster back to your hair that a no-sulfate shampoo cannot do, unfortunately.”