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Here’s What You Need to Know About Sulfates in Shampoo

You hear about them all the time, but are they bad for your hair?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately in the beauty industry about sulfates, with more and more hair care lines advertising their removal. But it seems like nobody ever tells us the reason. Which leaves you constantly wondering: What are sulfates and are they really all that bad for you?

Sulfates (often listed as sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate or ammonium laureth sulfate on ingredient lists) are cleaning agents that remove dirt, oil and buildup from your hair. Because of their exceptional cleansing abilities, they are often found in toothpastes and household cleaning agents. In shampoo, sulfates are responsible for the rich lather that many people associate with a good cleanse.

"The truth is, for most people, sulfates are no big deal."

Because sulfates are so good at cleaning and removing oil, some critics claim that they remove too much of it, leaving hair and scalps dry. On the flip side, others argue that sulfate-free shampoos don’t clean hair as well. Sigh.

Another part of the backlash against sulfates stems from an urban myth, spread by email, that the ingredient causes cancer. However, there is no evidence that this is true, and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, which studies chemicals used in cosmetic products, also declared that sulfates are safe for cosmetic use.

Should you go sulfate-free?

The truth is, for most people, sulfates are no big deal. In fact, a sulfate-enriched shampoo can be the best way to clean your scalp, especially if you have greasy hair or product buildup. If you have dry, frizzy or damaged hair, and you’re worried about sulfates, it won’t hurt to switch to a gentler shampoo or wash your hair less often, like every other day. Lastly, because reports have linked sulfates to contact dermatitis in some people, those with eczema or sensitive skin may benefit from sulfate-free formulations, says the American Academy of Dermatology.

Bottom line: If you’re happy with your regular shampoo—and it doesn’t cause dryness or irritation—continue to enjoy the lather.

Get more great health and wellness stories at Shape.com/Strive.