Debunking Sulfates: A Guide to the Beauty Industry’s Secret Ingredient


Are sulfates affecting your health?

Until recently, you’d likely never heard of them. Hair care products, facial cleansers, and even toothpaste have been using these chemicals since the birth of the American hygiene industry in the mid-twentieth century.

Only recently have personal care products, like Playa Beauty for hair, jumped on the “sulfate-free” bandwagon with their own non-sulfate products. Now, they’re advertising the removal of this popular additive front and center on their packaging. Here, we’ll tell you everything about sulfates, and whether you should steer clear from this popular ingredient.

What are Sulfates?

You’ve probably seen dozens of commercials of laughing babies in a bubble bath or shampoo commercials, featuring actors with a head full of foamy hair care products. Simply put, sulfates are the chemicals added to these products to make their signature “suds”.

Sulfates are a type of surfactant. These chemicals are what make foaming products, detergents, and emulsifiers work. With the help of water, sulfates can remove the build up of dirt, grime, and dead cells from your skin and scalp. Their secret power? The molecules of surfactants attract both oil and water away from the surfaces they come in contact with, making them powerful cleaning agents.

Are Sulfates Dangerous?

The three most common sulfates found in beauty and self-care products are sodium laureth, sodium lauryl, and ammonium laureth. They may seem harmless and an important ingredient for effective cleansing, but too much of anything can have negative effects.

Some reports have claimed that sulfates may be carcinogenic, but there has been no scientific evidence provided to support this theory. The most dangerous effect these chemicals may have is on the health of your skin and hair.

How Many Sulfates Are Too Much?

As sulfates strip surfaces clean, they aren’t very discerning. They wash away natural oils and break down the proteins in skin and hair at the same time they’re removing dirt.

While removing oils can help cleanse hair, regular use of sulfate products can leave it feeling dry and brittle. Since hair itself is a protein, these chemicals can damage the structural integrity of your locks, leaving them looking dull. One study showed that strands exposed to a sulfate broke down seven times faster than untreated hair, which goes to show their potentially destructive effects.

Curly or textured hair is extremely susceptible to visible damage from sulfate use. When these styles suffer structural damage, they loses volume and shape and curl patterns become lifeless or in extreme cases, non-existent. Dyed hair also loses its color much more quickly when exposed to sulfates.

Some people’s skins are more sensitive than others to synthetic chemicals, such as sulfates. Instances of contact dermatitis are a common problem when using these products. Just like with hair, sulfates can strip away too much of your natural oils. Dry skin is especially susceptible to rashes caused by chemical irritation as well.

How Can Sulfates Help?

Those with oily-type hair or skin may actually benefit from using sulfate products. Since they do such a great job of stripping away excess oil from surfaces, sulfates can actually help regulate areas of your body that generate too much oil. They are extremely popular in many acne-fighting cleansers for this very reason.

The same benefit applies to extra oily hair. While some natural oils have benefits for your hair’s health, excessive oils can leave your scalp feeling greasy or generate dandruff. Sulfates help cut through oil build-up all the way to your roots so you can get a fresh, salon-washed feel right at home.

Should You Love or Lose Sulfates?

If you’re thinking about making the switch away from sulfates, look for a company that prioritizes natural and transparent ingredients. Many companies may advertise their goods as sulfate-free, but always make sure to read the fine print so you know your body is getting the treatment it needs.

If you want to stick with sulfates, that’s okay too! Luckily, if you’re confident your hair and skin can handle it, sulfates can make your beauty routine a little bit easier every day. Just keep in mind that there are other products on the market that keep hair strong without this secret ingredient!

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