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.”

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.”

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.”