Should I be using sulphate-free shampoo, and what happens if don't?

Are sulphates in shampoo the big bad monster we think they are?
Are sulphates in shampoo the big bad monster we think they are?
Photo: Ridofranz/Getty Images
  • Sulphates have gotten quite a bad rep in the haircare industry over the last few years, but are they really that terrible for you?
  • Sulphates help cleanse the scalp of oil and dirt; the problem is, they're a little too good at their jobs.
  • People with naturally drier hair or sensitive scalps should consider switching to a sulphate-free shampoo. 

Sulphates in my shampoo? Uhm, no thanks! They're the enemy, right?

Well...not quite.

A couple of years ago, when the entire internet was going crazy about how everyone should be using sulphate-free shampoos, I blindly followed along. 

For context, I've got curly hair and, at the time, had just made the decision to go natural. For me, that meant creating my own hair masks, relying on oils like jojoba and others to keep my hair looking hydrated, and cutting certain products from my routine, including things with alcohol, parabens, and sulphates.

Shampoo brands quickly started hopping aboard the trend, with "sulphate-free" labels plastered all over their bottles along with prices that were rather hefty.

I still use sulphate-free shampoos today, because they're what works best for my naturally dry hair, but I only recently learned that sulphates may not be the big, bad villain the haircare industry has led me to believe it is.

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What are sulphates?

As Medical News Today describes it, sulphates are chemicals (known as surfactants) used as cleansing or foaming agents in shampoos. Yes, that satisfying, bubbly lather you get when washing your hair and the squeaky-clean feeling that follows after, you have sulphates to thank for that.

By the way, sulphates are not only found in shampoos; they are also in other cleaning agents like toothpaste, face cleansers, and household detergents. Okay, admittedly, that last one didn't make it sound so great.

One of the biggest deterrents for using products containing sulphates was claims that it could cause cancer. But there has been no scientific evidence to prove this. The general consensus is that, when used in the right way, sulphates should not pose a threat to your health and safety.

So why does the haircare industry hate it so much?

Here's the thing with sulphates: in shampoo, its job is to strip the hair and scalp of oil and dirt. But, as McGill puts it, the problem is that they're a little too good at their job as surfactants.

Their efficacy in stripping the hair of oil means that you could end up with a scalp that feels dry, and hair that looks dull. Because while too much oil may leave your hair looking greasy, we also need some of those natural oils to keep our scalps hydrated and our hair soft and pliable.

Sulphates are also irritants, so people with sensitive scalps may find they suffer from a bit of redness or irritation after using products containing them. And don't get me started on the painful sting when you accidentally get a bit of sulphate-containing shampoo in your eyes.

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Should you stay away from sulphates?

It depends. Dermatologist Dr Brendan Camp tells Today that while sulphates can be an effective tool for removing excess oil, they can also strip too much from your hair, potentially leaving it more fragile. And nobody wants dry, brittle hair.

His advice? People who have naturally drier hair may want to consider using sulphate-free products. The same applies for those with a history of dry or sensitive skin.

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