Here's everything you need to know about sulfates—plus, the best sulfate-free shampoo for your hair type.

By Shannon Bauer
February 13, 2020
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Moyo Studio/Getty Images

Over the years, the beauty industry has rolled out an exhaustive list of bad-for-you ingredients. But there's a catch: The claims aren't always supported by research, the FDA doesn't regulate ingredients, and it makes shopping for products confusing and complicated. One of the "dirty," hot-button ingredients you've probably heard of regarding hair care? Sulfates.

The concern about sulfates has everything to do with their external effect on your hair and scalp, and have no proven negative effects on your internal health. But what exactly are they and why might you want to opt for a sulfate-free shampoo? Ahead, experts break down the pros and cons. (Related: Waterless Beauty Is the Eco-Friendly Trend That Could Also Save You Money)

What are sulfates?

If you want to get scientific, sulfates refers to the SO42- ion that is usually formed or generated as a salt of sulfuric acid, says Dominic Burg, chief scientist, biologist, and trichologist for évolis Professional hair care. But in plain speak, sulfates are surfactants (aka cleansing agents), commonly used as an ingredient in shampoo, body wash, and face wash (in addition to household cleaning products, like dish and laundry detergent) because of their ability to lather. "Sulfates attract both oil and water, then remove it from the skin and hair," explains Iris Rubin, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Seen Hair Care. (Related: The Healthy Scalp Tips You Need for the Best Hair of Your Life)

Why choose a sulfate-free shampoo?

When you're looking at an ingredient label on a hair care product, there are two main sulfates you'll want to watch for and avoid: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), says Michele Burgess, executive director of product development at Oribe Hair Care. Why? While you can thank sulfates for your shampoo's amazing ability to lather, they are also quite problematic.

Sulfates can actually remove too much of your hair's natural oils, notes Dr. Rubin. This is especially important to consider for curly or keratin-treated hair, which craves moisture, or color-treated hair, as sulfates can also strip away the color. Plus, stripping your hair of oil can also cause dryness and irritate the scalp, says Burgess. (Related: 7 Key Steps to Preventing Hair Damage)

So what's the alternative?

It's natural to associate a foamy lather with a good clean, but that's not necessarily the case, says Burg. A product doesn't need to lather in order to cleanse; however, some sulfate-free shampoos will still foam to suit consumers' preferences.

That being said, there are plenty of shampoos made without sulfates that won't dull your fresh highlights or suck all the natural oils from your hair. Keep scrolling for a guide for hunting down the best sulfate-free shampoo for your hair type.

Best Drugstore Sulfate-Free Shampoo: L'Oréal Paris EverPure Sulfate-Free Moisture Shampoo

AMAZON

Boasting a 4.5-star rating, this hardworking shampoo is one of the top-rated sulfate-free shampoos on Amazon—at a price point that won't break the bank. The formula is replenishing (thanks to rosemary) yet lightweight, so it won't turn fine hair into limp, greasy strands. Also great? It's gentle enough to be used on color-treated hair since it won't damage or strip away color.

Buy It: L'Oréal Paris EverPure Sulfate-Free Moisture Shampoo, $5, amazon.com

Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo for Dry Hair: Moroccanoil Moisture Repair Shampoo

AMAZON

With 88 percent of customer reviews scoring four or five stars on Amazon, this shampoo has the internet's approval; Customers rave that it feels luxurious in addition to leaving hair soft, shiny, and silky smooth after one treatment. The argan oil and lavender, rosemary, chamomile, and jojoba extracts work together to create a nourishing blend that helps restore moisture and strengthen dry and damaged strands.

Buy It: Moroccanoil Moisture Repair Shampoo, $24, amazon.com

Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo for Dandruff or Scalp Health: évolis Professional Prevent Shampoo

DERMSTORE

Perfect for those with oily scalps or scalp issues such as flakiness, irritation, or dandruff, this shampoo washes away buildup and is packed with good-for-your-hair ingredients. It's formulated with botanicals selected for their healing and antioxidant properties such as mangosteen, rosemary, and green tea, says Burg. (Related: Why You Should Treat Your Scalp to a Detox)

Buy It: évolis Professional Prevent Shampoo, $28, dermstore.com

Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo for Fine Hair: Hair Food Manuka Honey & Apricot Sulfate-Free Shampoo

WALMART

The ingredients in this hydrating hair product read like the start of a delicious yogurt bowl—which makes sense, as the brand was founded on the belief that you should nourish your hair the way you do your body. Not only is this budget pick free of sulfates, but it's also made without dye, parabens, silicone, and mineral oil, making it a great pick for fine and oily hair.

Buy It: Hair Food Manuka Honey & Apricot Sulfate Free Shampoo, $12, walmart.com

Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo for Curly Hair: Oribe Shampoo for Moisture & Control

AMAZON

The sulfate-free surfactants in this shampoo effectively cleanse hair, but are more gentle than SLS or SLES, says Burgess. Oribe specifically formulated this cleanser for curly hair types that depend on moisture and the hair's natural oils to remain soft and frizz-free. (Pssst... You might want to try a microfiber hair towel to prevent frizz and breakage, too.)

Buy It: Oribe Shampoo for Moisture & Control, $46, amazon.com

Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo for Color-Treated Hair: Living Proof Color Care Shampoo

AMAZON

Sulfates are especially damaging for color-treated hair since they strip moisture and the dye, leaving tresses looking dry and overly processed. Yikes. This hero shampoo features a patented molecule that keeps hair cleaner for longer, and a UV filter to prevent color fade from the sun.

Buy It: Living Proof Color Care Shampoo, $29, amazon.com

Best Strengthening Sulfate-Free Shampoo: Sol de Janeiro Brazilian Joia Strengthening Smoothing Shampoo 

DERMSTORE

A plant-based keratin technology in this shampoo targets damage to repair the structure of the hair and seal split ends. It's also packed with Brazil nut selenium and buriti oil (both rich in vitamin E), omega-3 fatty acids, and healthy fats to deeply condition and add shine. Bonus: It creates a creamy lather and is scented with pistachio and salted caramel, like like the cult-fave Brazilian Bum Bum Cream. (Related: These Vitamins for Hair Growth Will Give You the Rapunzel-Like Locks of Your Dreams)

Buy It: Sol de Janeiro Brazilian Joia Strengthening Smoothing Shampoo, $29, dermstore.com

Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo for Shine: OGX Weightless Hydration Coconut Water Shampoo 

AMAZON

Just like electrolytes replace missing nutrients after a hard workout, the coconut water in this sulfate-free shampoo is like a big ol' swig of Gatorade for parched strands. Amazon customers rave that not only is it hydrating, but it also has a buttery, coconut scent that smells incredible. And if that doesn't convince you to give it a shot, maybe the 600+ positive reviews will.

Buy It: OGX Weightless Hydration Coconut Water Shampoo, $7, amazon.com

Best Sulfate-Free Purple Shampoo: Kristin Ess "The One" Purple Shampoo and Conditioner Set

AMAZON

If you remember color theory from school, purple is opposite orange, so adding violet tones to hair neutralizes any orangey or brassy hues. Use this purple shampoo to avoid brassy tones and to keep your blonde looking brighter. While it's most commonly used for bottle blondes, it can be used on undyed blonde hair and even on brown hair with highlights.

Buy It: Kristin Ess "The One" Purple Shampoo and Conditioner Set, $39, $42, amazon.com

Best Shampoo for Acne-Prone or Sensitive Skin: Seen Shampoo

SEEN

In the shower, shampoo gets on your face and back, and if not effectively cleaned, can sit there for hours, which in turn can lead to breakouts. Dr. Rubin created SEEN because she realized the effect hair care can have on skin and believes you shouldn't have to compromise the health of your skin to have great hair. This shampoo is non-comedogenic (read: won't clog pores), and made especially for those with acne-prone or sensitive skin. (Related: 10 Hair Products You Need to Use If You Work Out Often)

Buy It: Seen Shampoo, $29, anthropologie.com

Advertisement

Comments

Be the first to comment!