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Why Are Sulfates Bad for Hair?

December 27, 2021 3 min read

a woman washing her hair

Hair care products claim to give you healthier, shinier and fuller hair, but more often than not, they contain less-than-attractive ingredients that may raise a few red flags. Case in point: sulfates. Commonly found in conventional shampoo, these synthetic ingredients have developed a bad reputation due to their potentially harmful effects on hair, human health and the planet. (Hence, the rise of sulfate-free shampoos, like our all-natural shampoo bars.)

But what are sulfates, exactly, and what makes them so bad for your hair? In this post, we break down everything you need to know about the sulfates in your hair care products.

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What Are Sulfates, Anyway?

Sulfates are a family of synthetic chemicals commonly found in conventional shampoos and conditioners (in addition to other household products like facial cleansers, toothpaste and body wash). Their main purpose in hair care products is to create a lathering effect that helps remove dirt and oil from your hair. 

Sulfates fall under the umbrella of ingredients known as surfactants, which means they reduce surface tension to help break up oil and water. In essence, surfactants act as degreasers for your hair.

Popular sulfates that you might find on the back of your shampoo bottle include:

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
  • Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
  • Ammonium laureth sulfate
  • Sodium trideceth sulfate

Why Are Sulfates Bad for Hair?

Sulfates are cheap and super effective at giving hair a deeper clean, which is why they’ve long been a staple in hair care products. So, why have they garnered such a bad reputation in recent years?

Well, one issue with sulfates is that they can be a little too effective at washing away oil from your scalp. Your scalp is densely populated with sebaceous glands. These glands produce sebum, an oily combination of lipids that nourish and protect your hair follicles. When you wash away this protective layer, it can leave your hair feeling dry, brittle and prone to damage.

Washing too frequently with sulfates can also disrupt your hair’s microbiome, the delicate collection of bacteria, viruses and other microbes that live on your skin. Microbiomes rely on a diverse mix of microorganisms to function efficiently. If this balance gets out of whack and allows bad bacteria to overpower the good bacteria, it can lead to a host of scalp and hair problems, including dandruff, dry scalp and even hair loss.

Other Reasons to Avoid Sulfates

When used in excess, sulfates can do a number on your tresses. However, there are other reasons you might want to go sulfate-free. Sulfates can irritate the skin and have been found to impair the skin barrier. One of the roles of the skin barrier is to keep bad organisms out, so using a chemical that erodes this natural defense mechanism is obviously not ideal. 

Another big reason to avoid sulfates is that they’re bad for the environment. Sulfates are derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel that produces large quantities of planet-warming greenhouse gases. Sulfates are also tested on animals and have been known to harm aquatic wildlife after they go down the drain.

Why Go Sulfate-Free with The Earthling Co.?

Whether you have sensitive skin or want to make better decisions for your health and the planet, there are plenty of reasons to make the switch to our sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner bars.  

  1. Good for All Hair Types – Free from silicones, sulfates and other hair-damaging ingredients, our moisturizing shampoo and conditioner bars work great for all hair types (yes, including curly!).
  2. Safe for Color-Treated Hair – While sulfates aren’t the primary cause of color fading (you can blame hot water for that one), they can contribute to color fading and dry, brittle locks. By using a sulfate-free shampoo, you can protect your beautiful hair color and keep it shiny for longer. 
  3. Plastic-Free Packaging – Whereas liquid shampoo comes in a wasteful plastic bottle, our shampoo bars are plastic-free and ship in 100 percent compostable packaging.
  4. Cruelty-Free – Unlike shampoos containing sulfates, our shampoo and conditioner bars are made from plant-based ingredients and not tested on animals.
  5. Long-Lasting and Affordable – Our shampoo bars last 50 to 70 washes, making them an eco-friendly and budget-friendly choice for your hair.

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There is no doubt that sulfates can be damaging to your tresses. However, the reasons to use sulfate-free hair care products go far beyond healthier, shinier hair. By making the switch to our plant-based shampoo and conditioner bars, you can skip the harmful ingredients lurking in conventional shampoos, saving money and the planet in the process.

Keep Reading: Is Silicone Bad for Hair?


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