Are Sulfates in Hair Products Good or Bad? Experts Sound Off

Are Sulfates in Hair Products Good or Bad? Experts Sound Off featured image
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Sulfate-free shampoos may get all the buzz, but like many hair-care ingredients, the opinions behind the benefits and drawbacks of the trend are split. We took a moment to consider whether sulfates actually deserve the bad wrap they get and learn what their function is in hair products. The experts seem to see both sides, so when it comes down to choosing whether to sulfate or not to sulfate, it’s more of a personal choice, but there are a few things to consider about your hair health and goals before sudsing up with sulfates.

  • Rita Hazan is a celebrity colorist and founder of Rita Hazan Salon
  • Paul Labrecque is a master hairstylist and colorist
  • Shab Reslan is a trichologist and hair expert
  • Justine Marjan is a celebrity hairstylist
  • Krupa Koestline is a cosmetic chemist

What are sulfates?

“Sulfates are a chemical formulation used in cleansing products like soaps, toothpaste, detergents, etc. that work by removing impurities, dirt, oil and any other product buildup,” explains celebrity hair colorist and founder of the eponymous salon Rita Hazan. While there’s a variety of sulfates, the two most commonly found in shampoos are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, says master hairstylist and colorist Paul Labrecque. “They are put in shampoo to create lather and remove dirt and oils,” he adds.

Are sulfates bad for you?

When it comes to sulfates, it’s not necessarily as simple as good or bad. There are pros and cons to using products with sulfates, and they’re better for some people than others. The main reason sulfates get a bad wrap is because of how harsh they can be on the scalp. “They have a tendency to strip your hair of its natural oils, which can lead to further dryness and potential irritation,” says Hazan. Additionally, “if used too much and over a prolonged period of time some people can encounter issues with color fading (especially if you have dyed hair).”

What do sulfates do in hair products?

The harshness of sulfates can be looked at as a pro or con. In hair products, “Sulfates work by removing built-up dirt, oil and other impurities found in the scalp and hair,” says Hazan. “They grab on to sebum really well and easily rinse off regardless of hard or soft water conditions,” explains trichologist and hair expert Shab Reslan.

The benefits of sulfates in hair products

For those with more oily scalps, using shampoo with sulfates is generally advisable—unless the hair is color-treated. Reslan recommends a weekly clarifying shampoo that contains sulfates for those prone to oil and buildup. She notes that this can help control the production of oil on the scalp. Following the use of a sulfate-containing shampoo, celebrity hairstylist Justine Marjan says, “The hair feels clean, the residue is removed, and buildup is gone.”

One of the biggest benefits of sulfates is how well they grab onto sebum, says Reslan. If your hair ever has that squeaky clean feeling, Marjan says it’s likely thanks to sulfates. Due to this, Reslan suggests “sulfate-containing shampoos for those who wash their hair infrequently. Most natural shampoos and those formulated without sulfates do not sufficiently cleanse the scalp and are not ideal for those with oily scalps or infrequent washers.”

Cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline says the experience of using shampoo with sulfates is more luxurious as they promote plenty of lather. Marjan explains that, at their root, “sulfates are basically a salt that is added to shampoos to help them lather and sud up.” The lather sulfates create “incite the feeling of cleanliness…Sulfates are often a big part of the sensory experience of washing your hair,” says Marjan. We’re not one to deny you the simple pleasures in life, so if you’re looking for a more sensorial shower experience, a sulfate product may be the best bet.

With their top-tier lathering abilities, less product can go a longer way with products containing sulfates as compared to those sans-sulfate. Koestline notes that sulfates can also help provide a thicker consistency. This can quickly add up to sulfate products being cheaper compared to non-sulfate surfactants, she says. As an added bonus, Hazan notes that sulfates “also enhance the performance of other working ingredients in hair care that can improve conditioning and styling effects.”

The drawbacks of sulfates in hair products

Sulfates are amazing at ridding hair of excess oil and product buildup, but in the process, they tend to take color with them. Anyone with dyed hair recalls their colorist encouraging the use of color-safe shampoo and conditioner without sulfates. Koestline says sulfates can “strip or fade colored hair.” Although she notes that there is some contradictory evidence of this out there.

Yes, sulfates are great for cleansing the hair and scalp, but sometimes they can overdo it. Koestline warns that for those with sensitive skin or scalp, certain sulfates can be irritating. Marjan says the ingredient can “even lead to acne or skin irritation if you have sensitive skin,” she adds.

Sulfates are great at cleansing our scalp, but sometimes, they may work overtime and take the natural oils we need with them. This “may disturb the scalp microbiome and lead to other scalp issues,” warns Koestline. This is a problem because “if a sulfate removes too much oil, your natural barrier to your skin’s protective layer is removed,” says Labrecque. “This can leave someone more vulnerable to irritation, rashes and swelling of the skin. This can also result in dermatitis of the scalp.”

Labrecque agrees that while shampoos with sulfates can be great for those with overly oily hair and scalps, they must be used sparingly. “Your own oil is a natural conditioner for the hair follicle, and it is needed to create a healthy scalp environment,” says Labrecque.

As a known “degreaser,” Marjan notes that sulfates can be drying to both skin and hair. On the other hand, “sulfate-free shampoos use milder surfactants to cleanse your hair, thus leaving your strands and skin far less dry,” says Labrecque. Hazan notes that for some people when their hair gets dried out, it becomes frizzier.

Reslan warns that sulfate shampoo can also result in flaking. She notes that those with shorter hair, who tend to shampoo their hair daily, most commonly suffer from flaking “since they shampoo their hair much more often and flaking can fall right off instead of getting stuck in the hair.” Luckily, in most cases, Reslan says flaking can be addressed quickly by switching to a sulfate-free shampoo.

If you think sulfates aren’t for you, try these sulfate-free hair products

1 / 8

Moroccanoil Frizz Control Shampoo ($26)

Moroccanoil’s new frizz-fighting shampoo is miraculously free of sulfates and a NewBeauty Award winner. It’s gentle and nourishing on hair but hard on frizz, flyaways and static, preventing humidity from messing with your ‘do, especially for the curly girls.



Award Photo: Frizz Control Shampoo
Award Photo: Frizz Control Shampoo
2 / 8

Herbal Essence Grapeseed Color Nurture ($10)

No sulfates in sight, but grapeseed and camellia oil are in the mix. In addition to cleansing, this formula provides UV protection for all hair types, making it a great option for color-treated hair.


3 / 8

L’Oréal Professionnel Metal Detox Sulfate-Free Shampoo ($36)

This shampoo employs exclusive technology to remove harmful metal particles found in water, thereby protecting hair color and improving overall hair health. Reviewers love it, calling it “a miracle in a bottle.” Another says it “saved my hair and my sanity,” with a third noting it provided a “thorough deep clean without the dryness.”



4 / 8

Raw Sugar Living The Grow Pro Shampoo ($14)

Hazan recommends this affordable option with a delicious scent. “The formula is infused with vegan biotin and helps to support natural collagen while reducing breakage.”



5 / 8

Mizani Press Agent Smoothing Sulfate-Free Conditioner ($25)

This smoothing conditioner locks out humidity to ensure a sleek blowout or silk press. The creamy formula preps hair for thermal styling and features a melting technology that aids in detangling.



6 / 8

OUAI Detox Shampoo ($32)

Another Hazan pick, this detox shampoo “works to deeply cleanse the scalp and has hair-strengthening keratin to help with oiliness, shine control and flakiness.”



7 / 8

Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo ($42)

This weekly scalp scrub shampoo is for our dry skin friends. It boosts hydration by up to 120 percent and reduces flaking by up to 82 percent.



8 / 8

Ritz Hazan True Color Shampoo ($10)

Hazan loves using her brand’s shampoo. “It’s specifically designed for those with color-treated hair and helps remove build up without stripping any color.” 




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