Sulfate free shampoo is great for some hair types, but could be problematic for others. Find out if you should switch to sulfate free shampoo or stick with the sudsy stuff in our guide, plus considerations for your hair type.
Considering Sulfate Free Shampoo?
You’re all about doing what’s best for your hair, right? So when you find out that sulfates can potentially be bad for your hair, you might be tempted to toss out your shampoo faves in favor of sulfate-free options.
It’s a smart switch for certain hair types, but not everyone needs to use sulfate-free shampoo. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about no-sulfate shampoo to make the best decision for your hair’s health.
That includes a quick lesson on sulfates (what they are, how they work, and their pros and cons), hair types that need a sulfate-free formula, what to look for when you shop, and the best sulfate-free picks for each hair type.
So gather ‘round and get ready to lather up – let’s see if sulfate-free shampoo is right for you!
What Is Sulfate Free Shampoo?
Before we look at what sulfate-free shampoo is, we’ve got to talk about sulfates for a second.
Sulfates are what make shampoo come to a sudsy lather. They are a class of surfactant (cleansing soap) that attract water and oil like a magnet. When used in shampoo, sulfates do much of the scrubbing work for you.
Lightly massaging a sulfate shampoo into your scalp and hair brings it to a foamy, soapy lather quickly. And since the sulfates grab onto dirt and oil like a magnet, they enable your shampoo to “hold” the dirt and oil and pull it off your scalp and hair to be rinsed away with water.
The 3 most common sulfates you’ll find in shampoos are:
- Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
- Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
- Ammonium laureth sulfate (ALS)
When you see any of these ingredients in a shampoo, you’ll know it’s definitely not sulfate-free. In general, any sulfate that contains -yl (like sodium lauryl sulfate) is harsher on the hair than the versions that contain -eth (like sodium laureth sulfate). Ammonium laureth sulfate is the most gentle on hair.
Sulfate-free shampoo, then, is any shampoo formulated without sulfates. You won’t find SLS, SLES, or ALS in a no-sulfate shampoo. But it does get confusing when you start analyzing shampoo ingredients to determine whether or not it contains sulfates.
Many “sulfate-free shampoos” do contain sulfate compounds that are molecularly similar to sulfates (like sodium lauroyl glycinate), but different enough to legally allow the company to label the product as sulfate-free.
We’ll talk more about these “pseudo-sulfates” in a bit, but for now, let’s address the real question prompting you to consider switching shampoos: Are sulfates actually bad for your hair?
Are Sulfates Bad for Your Hair?
Do sulfates harm your hair? The short answer: They can. The extent of harm sulfates can do to your hair really depends on your hair type and condition. That’s why the beauty industry is still pretty divided when it comes to the safety and use of sulfates after all these years.
Some claim sulfates are carcinogens that strip the hair and scalp of all natural oils, creating a cascade effect of hair problems that range from oiliness to extreme dryness.
Others embrace sulfates fully, saying they’re totally safe to use and are the only way to get that classic, sudsy lather and deep clean.
So who’s right? A quick chemistry refresher will make things a little clearer.
Our skin is a protective barrier between our sensitive, squishy insides and the world around us. Some molecules are small enough to penetrate the skin (rendering that protective “barrier” ineffective) and others are too large to pass through.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), the most common sulfate found in shampoo, is one of those molecules small enough to penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream.
If you have sensitive skin or existing skin conditions, sulfate penetration can lead to irritation at the site of application (your scalp). Scalp irritation can result in more problems with your hair: Thinning and hair loss, higher likelihood of scalp infections, as well as itching and flakes.
What it won’t lead to is cancer. While there’s a lot of misinformation out there about sulfates, especially sodium lauryl sulfate, there is zero scientific evidence of carcinogenicity. And SLS has been studied a lot.
The “dangers” of sulfates, it seems, are more related to possible irritation and stripping the scalp’s natural oils away. One German study with 1,600 participants found that 42% of people – nearly half – had an irritant reaction to SLS. Another study discovered that hot water makes sulfates even more irritating to the scalp, which is challenging because many of us enjoy hot showers.
What’s key to remember is that researchers may apply sodium lauryl sulfates to participants’ skin directly and leave it longer than most people leave shampoo on their hair. One study left SLS on participants for 24 hours to test it.
So while 42% of the participants in the German study had an irritant response to sulfates, those same participants may not have the same irritant response when using shampoo containing sulfates and quickly rinsing it out.
So, let’s sum up the ways sulfates can harm your hair:
- Strips the scalp’s natural oils away
- Can cause chronic dryness and brittleness
- Can cause scalp irritation (red, dry, itchy, flaky, scaly)
- Can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream
Sulfates in shampoo won’t cause cancer, make your hair fall out, or poison you. But they may irritate your scalp and leave your hair dry.
On a journey to better hair health? Check out low pH shampoos next.
What to Look for in Sulfate Free Shampoos
When you start shopping around for sulfate-free options, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of them. There are tons of options available at every price point. But before you grab the first trusted name brand you see, know that sulfate-free shampoos aren’t always what they seem.
Since shampoo has to have the ability to lather up and create suds, companies creating sulfate-free products must include alternative ingredients to replace sulfates.
But some of these alternative ingredients have the same negative effects on the hair and scalp as sulfates. This is why you have to know which ingredients to reach for and which to avoid.
One reason sulfates can be irritating to the scalp and harsh on hair is their ability to penetrate the skin due to their small molecule size and low molecular weight. SLS, the most common sulfate in shampoos, has a molecular weight of 330.4, which means it freely and easily penetrates the skin.
But sodium lauroyl glycinate, a common sulfate replacer in no-sulfate shampoos, has a molecular weight of 279.3. That’s even smaller than SLS molecules, and it’s definitely able to freely penetrate the skin and cause irritation.
This is why it’s important to know what to look for when you’re checking out ingredients! Not all sulfate-replacers are gentle on the hair. In fact, many are just as harsh as sulfates.
Look for the following gentle ingredients in your sulfate-free ‘poo instead:
- Sulfosuccinates: Mild surfactants derived from amino acids, often used in baby shampoos and no-tear formulations
- Glucosides: Plant-derived surfactants known for being gentle without causing irritation
- Saponin: Found in “soap nuts,” this plant-derived surfactant is extra-gentle on hair and skin while relieving irritation and inflammation
- Glutamates: Mild surfactants derived from amino acids; known to be hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic
- Taurates and Fatty Acid Isethionates: Some of the most effective plant-derived surfactants for cleansing; derived from coconut fatty acids and considered extremely gentle on skin.
Avoid the following harsh ingredients if you’re going sulfate-free:
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
- Sodium laureth sulfate
- Ammonium laureth sulfate
- Cocamide DEA or MEA
- Propylene glycol
- Polyethylene glycols (PEGs)
- Cocamidopropyl betaine
7 Best Sulfate Free Shampoos
We found the best sulfate free options on the market. Our top 6 picks are all actually sulfate free, not just sodium lauryl sulfate free. Avoid all the bad ingredients and embrace the good with any of these customer favorites!
Best for Dry Hair
Dealing with chronically dry hair might be the reason you’re switching to a sulfate-free formula. If your hair always feels dry, brittle, and straw-like at the ends, you should try Maple Holistics Silk18 Shampoo.
This shampoo doesn’t contain any harsh sulfates, and it uses gentle sulfate alternatives to ensure you still get a good lather. It’s highly rated on Amazon, earning 4.4 stars overall from users.
We’ve tried other products from Maple Holistics and have always been satisfied with the results. If you’re out to moisturize and cleanse your hair without sulfates, this is the shampoo for you!
Best for Color Treated Hair
Color treated hair has been through a lot on the cellular level. You should be using a gentle shampoo on color treated hair to both protect your hair’s health and maintain your color longer.
The perfect solution is Alfaparf Milano Semi Di Lino Moisture Nutritive Shampoo. This one is 100% sulfate free and doesn’t contain any harsh salts that can cause similar problems.
It’s formulated to leave your hair soft, shiny, and fragrant (smells fruity and slightly floral). Reviewers give it 4.6 out of 5 stars, and it’s becoming more popular as people start to look for shampoos without sulfates. Grab this shampoo if you color or bleach your hair!
Best for Damaged Hair
Damaged hair needs a little extra love, and Love Beauty and Planet Hope and Hair Repair Sulfate-Free Shampoo is just what the doctor ordered. This sulfate-free option contains coconut oil and ylang-ylang extract for a delicious scent that does double duty.
It’s moisturizing, adds shine, makes hair easy to brush and detangle, and helps minimize existing split ends. This is one of those shampoos that makes your hair look better after just one use. It has a 4.6 rating overall with hundreds of reviews on Amazon.
Reviewers appreciate the scent, but note that this shampoo won’t lather as much as one with sulfates. Just spend an extra 30 seconds massaging it into your hair to ensure it’s completely clean.
Best for Curly Hair
Curly girls, treat your hair to something special by swapping your regular shampoo with the sulfate-free SheaMoisture Curl and Shine Coconut Shampoo. This moisturizing formula doesn’t contain any of the harsh sulfate alternatives we covered earlier.
Instead, it uses gentle, natural, and plant-derived surfactants to bring your curls to a satisfying lather. You’ll notice more defined, touchable curls after using this shampoo (and the matching conditioner is pretty great, too).
Reviewers rave about it, giving it 4.6 stars overall with more than 12,500 ratings. This is the no-sulfate shampoo to get if you have wavy or curly hair!
Best for Coily or Kinky Hair
Thick, dense, and super coily or kinky hair needs a secret weapon to be manageable, hydrated, shiny, and soft. That secret weapon is professional-quality, sulfate-free Pureology Hydrate Moisturizing Shampoo!
It’s designed especially for thick, hard-to-manage hair and works excellently on coily and kinky hair types. Pureology is known for creating some of the best hair and beauty products on the market.
And their product quality is at the professional level used in salons. For this reason, it’s a little pricier than drugstore shampoo, but the results are worth it.
Reviewers rate it an impressive 4.7 stars overall and there are currently more than 8,500 ratings. You’re going to love the definition, moisture, and shine this shampoo gives your hair!
Best for Aging Hair
Mature ladies who are going sulfate-free can uncover brillant, sparkling gray that won’t need to be covered by using JustNutritive Gray Hair Shampoo.
This 100% sulfate-free formula isn’t hiding any nasty or harmful ingredients inside. It’s all-natural and bursting with plant extracts and hydrating oils along with effective natural cleansers. Bonus: This gentle shampoo busts the brass that makes gray look yellow or dingy.
So when you use it, you’ll see a shinier, truer color emerge. Reviewers give it a respectable 4.1 stars overall, and it’s an AmazonChoice product.
So, Should You Use Sulfate Free Shampoo?
Since sulfates aren’t necessarily *bad* for your hair, just a little harsh for certain hair types, not everyone needs to choose a shampoo without sulfates. Determining whether or not it’s worth it to switch depends on a few factors. Before you decide to make the sulfate-free swap, ask yourself:
- Is your hair color-treated or damaged?
- Do you have curly hair?
- Do you have coily or kinky hair?
- Is your hair chronically dry?
- Do you struggle with frizz and flyaways?
- Are you growing your hair out or taking hair growth supplements?
- Do you have sensitive skin or skin conditions (eczema, psoriasis, etc.)?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, no-sulfate shampoo could be a game-changer for your hair. Better hydration, less frizz, defined curls and coils, and gentler cleansing are all ways sulfate-free formulas can benefit your hair.
If you answered no to all the above questions, you’re fine to continue using a “regular” shampoo with sulfates. Switching to a sulfate-free shampoo when you don’t need to could still offer your hair benefits, but they may not be worth the tradeoff of a less sudsy lather.