So are sulfates bad for your hair or not? Experts weigh in — plus more on why the cult-favorite beauty brand kept this controversial ingredient in their new hair-care line.
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Image of woman brushing long hair outdoors overlaid with images of The Ordinary hair care products
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You might have heard about (or are already a huge fan of) The Ordinary for its super affordable skin-care products. With most of the products from the brand costing less than 20 bucks, there's a reason why it's gone viral on TikTok several times, and the hashtag #theordinary has more than a billion views and counting on the app. I mean, who doesn't love a good beauty deal? (These are the best products from The Ordinary, according to skin pros.)

Leave it to the wallet-friendly brand to continue to stir up some buzz with its latest launch — The Ordinary hair-care line is a three-step hair health routine that purposely includes one of the beauty industry's most controversial ingredients — sulfates.

The Ordinary hair-care collection includes its Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Body and Hair (Buy it, $8, sephora.com) made to gently cleanse, the Behentrimonium Chloride 2% Conditioner (Buy it, $8, sephora.com) to hydrate hair without weighing it down, and the Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA for Scalp (Buy it, $13, sephora.com) to support scalp health and hydration. And while sulfates have notoriously received a bad rap with claims that they're too harsh and damaging on the hair, the brand hopes to destigmatize and educate consumers on sulfates and their — gasp — benefits.

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Credit: Sephora

Why The Ordinary Wants to Rebrand Sulfates

"A common myth about hair care that I see quite often is that certain ingredients are universally bad for hair," says Prudvi Kaka, the chief scientific officer at Deciem, the makers of The Ordinary. This messaging that particular ingredients are always "bad" for all hair types ignores factors such as the concentration of sulfates within a product, the total formulation, what health of someone's existing hair, and the specific hair concerns that need to be addressed, says Kaka. "For example, the anti-sulfates messaging across the industry has labeled sulfates as harsh but, when formulated properly with appropriate concentration levels, they can [help to] create a mild and effective product," he says.

Sulfates will typically appear on the back of ingredient labels as sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, or in the case of The Ordinary SLES-2 — which the company says is a mild form of the ingredient.

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Credit: Sephora

What Sulfates Do to Your Hair

To fully decipher whether sulfates are actually bad for your hair, though, it's necessary to understand what they are in the first place. Sulfates are a type of detergent widely used in beauty and personal care products for their lathering and cleansing properties, says Penny James, a certified trichologist and founder of Penny James Salon in New York City. "The use of sulfates in a shampoo is effective to clean the oil and dirt from the hair shaft and scalp," she says. (Related: How Often Should You Wash Your Hair, Really?)

Sulfates serve as a surfactant, which is how it helps eliminate dirt, oil, and debris off of the hair and scalp. "Sulfates emulsify oil and dirt on hair and scalp so that the dirt can be pulled into the water and rinsed off easily, along with dead skin cells," says Marisa Garshick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. "Sulfates also help to prevent build-up and are great for greasy, dirty hair."

Although it's helpful that sulfates are able to remove all the dirt and grime you don't want in your hair or on your head, the ingredient is almost too good at removal, which is why there are concerns about the usage of the ingredient in the first place. "Sulfates are so effective at cleansing that they can strip the hair of its natural oils and nutrients," says Gaby Longsworth, M.D., a certified hair practitioner, scientist, and owner of Absolutely Everything Curly. In addition to dryness and lack of oils in the hair, other concerns include increased frizz, faded hair color, and irritation for those with sensitive scalps, says Dr. Longsworth. (Related: Try These DIY Hair Masks to Treat Dry, Brittle Strands)

Why Hair Type Matters When It Comes to Sulfates

Those with extremely damaged, bleached, curly, or coiled hair (which is naturally drier than other hair types) might be wary of using a sulfate-infused hair product because it can exacerbate existing concerns, such as dryness and frizz, explains Dr. Longsworth. Additionally, those with fine hair may also find sulfates a bit harsh, notes James. "If you have very fine hair or you have sensitivity to sulfates as this can cause a rash on the skin or dermatitis," she says.

However, the concentration of sulfates in the formulas plays a big role in the impacts it has on hair, as Kaka previously mentioned. "The content of surfactants in other shampoos on the market is typically between 10 percent and 20 percent, but concentrations at this level increase the drying effect," he says. The Ordinary formula "takes SLES-2 down to its essential effective cleansing level of four percent in our cleanser without the need for additional bulky ingredients."

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Credit: Sephora

The concentration level in The Ordinary's cleanser is also why users may notice it doesn't lather as much as other formulas. However, Kaka reassures that doesn't change its efficacy, as how much a formula lathers isn't necessarily an indication of cleansing ability. The hair and body cleanser by the brand was also tested on colored-treated hair and found that it didn't strip or fade the color as sulfates are notoriously thought to do, according to Kaka. (Related: How to Make Your Hair Color Last and Keep It Looking ~Fresh to Death~)

Bottom Line On Sulfates for Hair

Sulfates are safe to use, especially if you're someone who needs a deep clean to remove build-up. It's more about preference than it is about damage, says Dr. Garshick. "Because sulfates may be considered drying in certain individuals, some people prefer to avoid them in shampoo," she says. However, the latest The Ordinary cleanser was made to serve as a basic, effective, and affordable shampoo option for all hair types, says Kaka. "This is also why we conducted not only clinical efficacy testing but also safety testing to confirm it is non-irritating and non-sensitizing to the skin, as well as gynecological testing (since it's meant to be used as an external body wash, too) showing it's safe for its intended use."

If you're concerned about potential dryness, following up with a conditioner with a low pH (think: below seven) can offset any concerns you have as a conditioning product will work to smooth the hair cuticle, the opposite effect of what some sulfates can do to the hair strands. And sure enough, The Ordinary Behentrimonium 2% Conditioner has a pH between 4.0 to 5.0 while the cleanser ranges between 4.5 to 5.5, which studies show is less likely to cause frizz and breakage. So, go ahead and give sulfates another shot — your hair just might surprise you.