Are sulphates in shampoo really that bad?

When was the last time you flipped over your shampoo bottle to read its ingredient list? Do it and you’ll likely find 15-30 hard to pronounce ingredients, usually ending in “-ol” or “-ate” or “-yl”.

Cosmetic chemists aside, most of us will have a hard time deciphering this kind of information, which means it’s rare for a shampoo ingredient to become a household name. That is, with the exception of one: sulphates.

For years haircare brands have proudly omitted sulphates from products.Credit:iStock

Within the beauty community, sulphates are a divisive ingredient due to concerns they can strip natural oils from your scalp and hair, leading to hair dryness and scalp sensitivity. There are tons of “sulphate-free” options out there, touted as the gentler choice for your hair and scalp.

Generally speaking, the brands who do choose to go “sulphate-free” shout it from the rooftops, whereas those who include sulphates in their formulas keep it on the down low.

But recently, popular skincare brand The Ordinary went against the grain for the launch of its first-ever shampoo, highlighting the fact that yes, the formula does contain sulphates – even calling it Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Body and Hair.

“Rather than focusing on fear-mongering, we want to focus on the facts,” says Prudvi Mohan Kaka, the brand’s chief scientific officer. “When formulated properly, sulphates are an extremely effective shampoo ingredient that can also be an environmentally sustainable option.” The Ordinary’s chosen sulphate is “readily biodegradable [and] can easily be broken down completely and quite quickly in the environment.”

Rather than writing off sulphates entirely, Kaka says that The Ordinary wants to shift the conversation around this ingredient. “We lead with science and place great importance in the education of our consumers to help provide everyone with the tools to make their own informed decisions when it comes to skin and hair care.”

What are sulphates and why are they used in beauty products?

“In personal care products, a sulphate is a surfactant,” explains Hannah English, pharmaceutical scientist and author of the soon-to-be-released book Your Best Skin: The Science of Skincare. “A surfactant breaks up the surface tension between the oil and water so that oil can be broken up and washed away.”

In layman’s terms, a surfactant is what makes your shampoo lather and foam, so you can more easily distribute the product and get that “clean” feeling. Sulphate-free shampoos use alternate ingredients to try to create the same lathering effect with varying degrees of success.

Kaka adds: “The most commonly used ingredients from the sulphate category are sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES).” The latter of which features in The Ordinary’s shampoo.

Why do sulphates have such a bad reputation?

Of the most commonly used sulphates, SLS is the harshest – and it’s also historically the most popular. “SLS is a strong surfactant that’s great at cleansing and foaming,” says English. “[However] it can also be irritating in high concentrations.”

But in contrast to SLS, “SLES surfactants are much milder, making them slightly more popular for personal care product use,” says Kaka.

Distinguishing between harsh and not-so harsh sulphates can be confusing for consumers, says English: “If you’re not acquainted with these substances, you might read that sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) can be irritating, take that in, and then come across sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) later on and struggle to recall which one is challenging for skin.” It’s for this reason that some buyers go completely sulphate-free after a bad experience with SLS.

Should I avoid sulphates or not?

It’s the dose that makes the poison, Kaka says: “The content of surfactants in other shampoos on the market can sometimes be between 10 per cent and 20 per cent – however, concentrations at this level increase the possible drying effect.” Whereas The Ordinary’s shampoo includes a “gentle cleansing level of 4 per cent”.

English agrees: “Think about ingredients in skincare like ingredients in a cake. If you put too much flour, the cake might be drier than you prefer. That doesn’t mean flour is bad. It means the recipe was created by someone or for someone that likes dry cake.”

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