Everyone in the curly world seems to be on the lookout for them, but what exactly are sulphates and do we really need to be so cautious?
What are sulphates?
Essentially, sulphates are cleansing agents.
They are the active ingredient in shampoo that actually cleans our hair and scalp. Sulphates are surfactants. Surfactants attract oil and dirt to them and also provide the foam or lather that we associate with shampoo.
Why do sulphates have a bad reputation?
It’s common to hear that sulphates are found, not only in shampoos but also in household cleaning products, herbicides and adhesives. This makes us question whether we should be putting the equivalent of household cleaning products on our hair.
It can be argued that they are, in fact, too effective at this. They can strip your hair of its natural oils and leave it dry.
Do I need to avoid sulphates?
The truth is that sulphates are fantastic at removing dirt and oil and it’s the kind of hair you have that dictates whether you should be using them or not.
Put simply, is your hair dry already?
If the answer is yes, you might do well to avoid harsh sulphates. Dry hair can benefit from the oils produced by our scalp. That ‘squeaky clean’ feeling that some shampoos give might dry your hair out even more.
Textured hair has a tendency to be dry. Oils take longer to travel the length of your hair from your scalp and this can leave it dry, particularly at the ends.
Straighter hair types might find that sulphate shampoos work just fine. The build-up of oils is likely to be greater on straighter hair types. Removing these oils is less of a problem because the hair isn’t dry to begin with.
This is why the Curly Girl Method speaks so much about avoiding sulphates. It is to preserve the health of your hair and keep it moisturised.
Can porosity be a factor?
Porosity levels can also affect your hair’s relationship with sulphates. High porosity hair will be drier than low porosity hair and so less well suited to sulphate-cleansing.
Take the porosity quiz
Who else should avoid sulphates?
If your hair is coloured, you will benefit from avoiding sulphates. If your hair is coloured and curly, low poo will almost definitely be the answer.
Sulphates can accelerate the fading of darker tints and bleached hair will be dry so it is best for all types of coloured hair to use sulphate-free shampoo.
Are there alternatives?
The solution suggested by the Curly Girl Method is co-washing. This means using a conditioning cleanser instead of traditional shampoo and conditioner. It is a one-step process. The benefits? You aren’t using a harsh cleanser on your hair. The possible downside? Too much of any moisturising ingredient can lead to build-up. Hair can become greasy over time due to repeated co-washing.
Another solution is low-poo shampoo. This means that the product in question is sulphate-free but still acts like a regular shampoo. You still follow with conditioner and it still foams to give us the lather.
Are there any exceptions?
The exception to this is clarifying. Clarifying means washing your hair with a ‘harsher’ and more thorough shampoo occasionally to remove any products that may have built up on your hair or scalp. These clarifying shampoos tend to contain sulphates. It is usually recommended that you clarify once every 2-4 weeks.
Clarifying is particularly beneficial for people with curly hair. If you are co-washing, this is an important step in your routine to remove moisturising ingredients that can accumulate.
It will reset your hair and give you a blank canvas.
Quick note of warning!
Some shampoos are labelled ‘SLS/SLES free’. These acronyms stand for ‘Sodium Lauryl Sulphate’ and ‘Sodium Laureth Sulphate’. These are 2 of the harshest sulphates that you will find in shampoo.
These shampoos will be free from these 2 sulphates but not from all sulphates!
It helps to be aware of sulphates and consider your own individual hair texture and porosity level when choosing a hair cleanser. Sulphates aren’t always bad and they can often have a place in a curly hair routine alongside other sulphate-free cleansers.
You might also find this post helpful Co-wash, low-poo or shampoo? A revealing guide to the best cleanser
Check out some products
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Carol’s Daughter, Hair Milk Sulfate Free Cleansing Conditioner For Curls
Mop Top Co-wash Cleansing Conditioner
Low-poo or sulphate-free shampoos
Noughty To The Rescue Moisture Boost Shampoo
SheaMoisture Shampoo Curl and Shine for Curly Hair
Bumble and Bumble Sunday Shampoo
Paul Mitchell Shampoo Two