Did you also notice how more and more bottles are labelled “free of sulphates” (or free of sulfates) when perusing the aisles where the shampoos and body washes are lined up? Or perhaps you got a friend whose excessive indulgence in beauty has also influenced you to be wary of sulphates.
But how do you know what’s good or bad for your skin? Maybe a quick skim on the results from Google left you scratching your head. No wonder, with the many scare campaigns that list ingredients that are commonplace and really not that scary at all. But it’s also not surprising: scientific words are not terms we encounter in our day to day lives and so we’re more wary of things we seldom see.
Misinformation and ambiguity affect a lot of industry and it seems many marketing tactics thrive on exactly these conditions. In particular, it seems skin care and cosmetics are especially affected by scaremongering but also thrive on it. So much so that many brands use this as tactics to scare people into buying their “free-of” or “natural” alternatives.
Read on to find out what sulphates do and if you really need to banish all products containing them.
What are sulphates and what are they used for?
For the impatient amount us: Sulphates are cleansing agents. They’re what gives products like shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and household detergents their satisfying foaminess.
And for those who want more details, a sulphate, chemically speaking, is a type of salt. Sulphates is the umbrella term for sulphate-based ingredients used in cleansing products. They’re surfactants which means their molecular makeup has one portion that cuts through water and another through oil. In short, they reduce the surface tension between ingredients.
Surfactants allow fats to disperse in the water. They foam up and loosen dirt which allows dirt and grime to be washed from surfaces, from anything from your scalp to floors. Since surfactants attract both oil and water, they effectively detach both and any other dirt and buildup from skin and hair.
There are many types of sulphates, with the most common ones being sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), sodium laureth sulphate (SLES), and ammonium lauryl sulphate (ALS). The difference between them boils down to the cleansing factor and this makes SLS the king and the next in line is SLES. Sulphates are derived from fossil fuels and plant oils.
Sulphates are added to beauty products all the way back to the 1930s. So what’s it doing on the “free of” list?
The fuss about sulphates
Since sulphates are made from petroleum, they’re considered controversial due to their origin. And if they’re plant-based, for example, if they’re made of palm oil, that also causes a stir because tropical rainforests are destroyed to make way for palm tree plantations.
Since sulphates are effective “degreaser”, they can do their work too well. They can be too effective in washing away oils so that your skin might become irritated or reddened, or your hair dry and brittle. Should you fall into the sensitive skin type, sulphates may cause your skin and scalp to tingle, itch, or get red.
So, there’s no special reason to avoid sulphates unless you have an individual sensitivity towards them. Also, the American (FDA), European, and Canadian authorities consider them safe ingredients for cosmetic use.
To recap, sulphates are safe for us when used as instructed.
Still on the lookout for alternatives?
If you enjoy the foamy lather or that squeaky clean feeling, just carry on as before. If you got dry or sensitive skin, you may want to try gentler surfactants than sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulphate (SLES). Just remember these products probably won’t lather up.
If you take SLS, the foaming agent, out of the formulation then your cleanser won’t lather like you might be used to. A milder alternative is ammonium lauryl sulphate (ALS). Keep in mind, irritation and other side effects (aka acne and clogged pores) can still occur, especially if you’re prone to dry or sensitive skin.
Though it’s important to know that when you use a product that foams up, it contains a cleansing agent. Even if that product is labelled sulphate-free, it just means another type of lathering agent has taken its place.
How to check for sulphates in products
The best thing you can do is scrutinise the ingredients list on your products and read about anything you’re not familiar with. Just because a product is labelled sulfate-free, doesn’t mean it can’t cause any reactions. Even if it may not contain SLS or SLES, it still includes ingredients from the same family
- Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate
- Sodium lauroyl isoethionate
- Sodium lauroyl taurate
- Sodium cocoyl isoethionate
- Sodium lauroyl methyl isoethionate
- Sodium lauroyl sarcosinate
- Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate
Do you need to worry?
Sulphates are effective and safe when used as directed in the wash-off products. Products containing sulphates are not massively more stripping than similar sulphate-free products.
Their biggest downside is that they can be drying and cause irritation to your skin, especially if they get into your eyes. The issue of being drying and causing reactions may or may not affect you. Everyone’s skin is different. But they shouldn’t send you to the hills unless you got a history of sensitivity. How your skin reacts depends not only on the sulphates but also on the brand and manufacturer.
If you want alternatives, also because you want to do something for the environment, you can opt for solid soaps and shampoos rather than liquid. As for your household, you can make detergents using diluted white vinegar. If you find the smell of vinegar unpleasant, you can also try lemon. Just make sure to ventilate the space while you’re cleaning.
The beauty industry itself doesn’t think they are a cause for concern. It’s rather that some marketers think that when consumers believe an ingredient is dangerous, they can use that fear to sell a product. Just like when you see “free of parabens” or alcohol-free.