Should Sulfates Make A Comeback In Haircare?

In light of the news reported by Business of Fashion last week that The Ordinary, a brand from Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.-owned Deciem, is launching a shampoo with sulfates (or sulphates in British English) as its hero ingredient, for the latest edition of our series posing questions relevant to indie beauty, we decided to ask 12 haircare entrepreneurs, experts and executives the following question: Do you think sulfates should make a haircare comeback?

Prudvi Kaka Chief Scientific Officer, Deciem

The trend of removing sulfates from products stems from the "clean beauty" movement, yet sulfates are very effective cleansing agents that break down and remove dirt and other impurities due to their ability to dissolve the barrier between dirt, oil and water.

Sulfates are safe to be used in haircare applications provided that they are intentionally and properly formulated for that intended purpose and have the appropriate irritation testing performed by the product manufacturers, which is what we do at Deciem.

Concentrations of sulfates in haircare products may vary, but, with the correct formulation techniques cleansers containing sulfates or any derivatives can be created to produce a very effective product with mild, gentle cleansing.

At The Ordinary, we're committed to providing our audience with evidence-based, science-backed formulations. Instead of following the trend of removing sulfates, we researched them and reduced them down to their essential levels. The Ordinary’s Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Body and Hair incorporates SLES-2 at a 4% concentration, which gives the formula its cleansing ability while mitigating any concerns around irritation due to its low concentration within the product.

Lavinia Popescu VP of R&D, Olaplex

Sulfate surfactants systems have been used in the cosmetic industry for more than 60 years. The most common are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). In the cleaning category, this surfactant class is a very efficient cleanser that can bind very effectively with oil and the dirt from hair and skin. In general, it is a safe category and also very effective in cleaning.

If they are used in high concentration or for a very long time, they can however induce irritation on the scalp/skin and/or dryness. Also, the hair can feel dry and sometimes brittle. Since Olaplex targets all hair types at different stages of damage, we decided not to include sulfates in the formulas as they can increase the dryness of the hair or scalp. In the end, it is important to understand the application, the usage and the combination of these systems to create safe and effective products for the consumer.

Barbara Olioso Founder, Formulator and Educator, The Green Chemist

Sulfates are effective and cheap cleansing agents that thicken easily and foam very well. However, they tend to be harsh on the skin and hair. SLS, one of the most famous sulfates, has a high irritation score, but it is true its irritation potential is concentration dependent.

Using it at 4% would not be really enough to provide the cleansing, thickening and foaming people expect, so what else is in that formula to compensate for this low level of use? How would they prove this approach would provide a “clean or cleaner” shampoo? Will they use non-biodegradable microplastic ingredients to get the right consistency? I think they need to provide evidence to prove their theory and also explain what environmental benefits this would provide.

I also believe humanity has progressed thanks to the desire for innovation and improvement. To me, the argument that sulfates are cheap and work goes against the desire for milder and more sustainable beauty products. The cosmetic industry is being influenced by sustainability, moving towards using ingredients made with green chemistry principles and responsibly sourced palm oil derivatives. For these reasons, I do not believe going backwards with sulfates is the way forward.

Anthony Standifer Co-Founder and CMO, mSEED Group

If there is only one certainty in life, it's change. The concept of sulfate-free likely will not be immune from this fact. Millennials led the anti-sulfate movement and pushed a new product norm in the beauty industry.

As gen Z consumers shift into mainstream buyers, their attitudes will not be the same as the generation before them, and I suspect that the push toward effective sulfates could be a mind shift. I personally have never given up on sulfate-based cleaners as effective deep cleansers of hair and scalp.

Countiss M. Hamilton Associate Manager of R&D Technology Transfer, Aunt Jackie's Curls & Coils

There isn't a hard yes or no to this question. What should be considered is the user. Sulfates are great cleansers for people dealing with stubborn buildup and oily hair, however, on the other hand can be very harsh and irritating for an user that has normal to dry hair. Aunt Jackie’s products are sulfate-free and offer a variety of types of shampoos (Clarifying, Moisturizing and more) to welcome textural diversity.

Ross Goodhart Co-CEO and Founder, Jupiter

We're not big fans of sulfates. While effective cleansers for dirt, grease and buildup on your hair, they often do too good a job at stripping away your scalp's natural oils, which can disrupt the scalp microbiome. For some, this can lead to dryness, itching and irritation, and for others can actually lead to more oil production as your scalp tries to rebalance itself by creating more sebum.

And since healthy hair starts at the scalp, any type of scalp discomfort can lead to an array of issues for your hair like dryness, frizz, and breakage. Not to mention, sulfates can often strip color or chemical treatments from your hair.

That's why all of Jupiter's formulations are sulfate-free. We've found that the gentler alternatives do a great job at cleansing without irritating your scalp or drying out your hair while protecting color and chemical treatments.

Sheree LaDove Funsch Founder and CEO, LaDove

Sulfates have never left. They are great cleansers and can be formulated to be as gentle as their sulfate-free alternatives. Sulfates became a “free of” marketing ingredient because they are not good to use on chemically treated hair as they decrease the life of color and keratin treatments.

Sulfates used to be predominately derived from petroleum. However, now they can be derived from sustainable alternatives such as mass-balanced palm.

Conny Wittke Co-Founder, Superzero

There are different types of sulfates used in haircare and each has to be looked at for their own merit and safety profile. For one, there are detergent sulfates like SLS, SLES and coco sodium sulfate. And then there are high performance conditioners that also include the name sulfate like behentrimonium bethosulfate, but have nothing to do with detergent sulfates and are in many ways quite their opposite as they act as cationic conditioning agents that smooth the cuticle layers and make hair soft, smooth and manageable.

When it comes to detergent sulfates, we decided for more gentle cleansing agents, but I would not categorize detergent sulfates as categorically bad. It’s more about how and at what levels you formulate with them. Detergent sulfates are a combination of salts and fatty acids, and they are very efficient cleansers. Thus, if included at low levels and blended with mild surfactants and effective conditioning agents, they can be very effective and should not be categorically shamed.

But if they are used at high concentrations, which they often are because they are very cheap ingredients and much cheaper than gentler alternatives, or if they are not blended with the right co-surfactants and conditioning ingredients, they can cause skin and scalp dryness, itchiness and irritation and can pull too much protective oils and sebum from your hair and scalp, which makes your hair dry and dull and results in faster color fading.

At Superzero, we use milder, sulfate-free ingredients in our shampoo bars, namely isethionates and sugar-based cleansers in the form of glucosides, and blend them carefully with proven conditioning agents and emollients and other hair actives tailored to different hair types and needs.

Holly Dear Founder, House of Dear

Sulfates are chemicals used as cleansing agents in shampoos. They help remove the hair and scalp of oils and some buildup that may be on the hair and scalp. Some downfalls of sulfates in shampoos are that they can be drying and end up removing oils that could be beneficial to the overall health of the scalp and hair shaft. You also risk the chance of over drying and create irritability to the scalp and dehydration to the hair.

I do not believe sulfates are the best ingredients to use in shampoo. There are other solutions that help protect and actually have more benefits for the scalp and hair and the overall result being more desirable than just a cleansing agent.

Esinam Agbley Cosmetic Chemist And Beauty Business Consultant, Enam Cosmetics

Sulfates are great cleansing ingredients that are very effective in removing dirt and oils. When used in rinse-off products such as shampoos, they are very safe. In fact, scientifically, sulfate-free haircare products are not safer than sulfate-containing ones.

The sulfate-free trend was mainly used by companies to differentiate themselves from other brands on the market. If you look for top-selling shampoos, they all contain sulfates. As a cosmetic chemist, I welcome the news that a reputable brand like The Ordinary has launched a new shampoo that contains sulfates.

Yolanda Cooper Founder, We Are Paradoxx 

I would say we are on the fence in the whole sulfate debate. We partly decided not to use them because we don’t use anything that can potentially cause irritation to 1% or less of our customer base.

Sulfates aren’t the big bad ingredients they are made out to be. Many people are unaffected by sulfates. More people than not are unaffected by them, but part of the reason we decided to go sulfate-free is there was definitely a trend away from them and consumer demand for sulfate-free products. There are so many people that look for sulfate-free products that don’t even know if they have sulfate intolerance.

I definitely think they could well be on the comeback if education comes to the fore that most people don’t suffer a problem from them, but I also would say there’s no need for them. Maybe five years, the alternatives were really poor so sulfate-free shampoos felt like crap, and they made your hair feel like crap, but all of our products foam beautifully, and there are no sulfates in them. So, if you don’t need them, why use them?

Carrie Sporer Co-Founder, Swair

The Ordinary's choice to use sulfates and market their product calling it a "hero ingredient" definitely brings to light a lot of conversations quietly happening in the beauty industry. While many ingredients have been removed from products because they truly are harmful or their safety is unclear, others have been "cancelled" based on misinformation or greenwashing.

When it comes to sulfates specifically, there are definitely levels at which they can safely be included in formulas from a toxicity perspective. However, even at these low levels, they can be irritable for someone with sensitive scalp, skin or eyes. My co-founder, Meredith, suffers from eczema and is unable to use products with sulfates, so we chose to add those to Swair's "No List."

Ultimately, we're all about transparency and choice. It's great that The Ordinary is informing customers that sulfates still have a place in haircare, and it's great that there are a plethora of choices for customers who want to omit sulfates from their routine. It's all about what works for you and makes you feel your best.

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