Sulfate is a common ingredient in beauty products thanks to its sudsing superpowers. Here's why more brands are ditching the additive, and why you should, too.

By Rachel Wermager
July 29, 2019
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Maybe your hairstylist has used the term "sulfate-free" when recommending products, or maybe you’ve seen it advertised on more bottles of shampoo lately. To get slightly scientific, sulfate, AKA sodium laureth sulfate, is an ingredient commonly used in hair-care products because of its foaming properties (it's used in other cosmetic and home cleaning items, too). Though the Environmental Working Group's Cosmetics Database says sulfates are safe in small quantities, they can have some not-so-nice side effects like dehydrating strands and stripping color. Here, beauty experts explain why you should switch to a sulfate-free shampoo and share their favorite inexpensive formulas.

Rear View Of Woman Taking Bath In Bathroom
Image courtesy of Getty.
| Credit: Rear View Of Woman Taking Bath In Bathroom

What Do Sulfates Do?

“Sulfates are harsh detergents that are commonly found in shampoo and other beauty products. They work by attracting and removing oil from your scalp and hair,” says Hollee Wood, a licensed cosmetologist. “However, they strip the good oils and moisture from your hair, leaving it dry and lifeless.” Over time, using hair products with sulfates can lead to breakage, color fading, and dryness. Even oily strands can be a signal of dry hair; your scalp could be producing more oil to overcompensate for moisture-deprived strands.

So why would companies put sulfate into their shampoos? Well, it is a key ingredient to remove dirt and grease, and it does that effectively—just a little too effectively, making it harsh on your locks. It’s also what gives your shampoo a nice lather. Most of us were taught that a shampoo with a rich lather is the right choice, but that kind of thinking can be wrong, says Shaunda Necole, cosmetologist and beauty blogger.

How to Shop for a Sulfate-Free Shampoo

While most from-the-salon hair products do not include sulfates, it's taken drugstore brands a little longer to hop on the bandwagon. With the trend becoming more popular though, it's getting much easier to find sulfate-free options without calling your stylist. Necole praises the way drugstores have stepped up. "It's so refreshing that these quick-stop beauty shops have leveled up their shelves to include a variety of shampoo brands free of sulfates," she says. 

Most package labels clearly indicate when a product like shampoo is sulfate-free; another giveaway is the price tag. “Typically, sulfate-free formulas are more expensive than other options,” says celebrity hairstylist Paul Labrecque. He notes that sodium laureth sulfate is inexpensive and readily available, so it's typically added into formulas right after water.

The benefits you’ll get from spending a little extra on a sulfate-free option are noticeable, especially if you regularly color or highlight your hair. “A sulfate-free formula will provide less stripping of your hair, more moisture retention so your strands won’t be as dry, less color fading and damage, and better scalp health,” says Labrecque. The only thing you might miss about your old shampoo? The big bubbly suds.

5 Expert-Approved Drugstore Sulfate-Free Shampoos

pink and purple bottle of shampoo
Image courtesy of Walmart.

L'Oreal Paris EverPure Sulfate Free Moisture Shampoo

Among the experts we spoke with, this was the most popular drugstore-brand sulfate-free shampoo. The formula won't dull or damage hair and will give special care to color-treated hair so that it keeps its salon-fresh color for longer.

rose water shampoo, pink bottle with pump
Image courtesy of Target.

Pantene Pro-V Blends Rose Water Shampoo

Reviewers love the rose water smell of this cheap sulfate-free shampoo. They also mention how the lightweight formula leaves hair noticeably softer. No lingering residue also means you'll be able to go longer in between washes. (This is how often you should actually be washing you hair—it might surprise you!)

orange and cream bottle of shampoo
Image courtesy of Walmart.

SheaMoisture Raw Shea Butter Moisture Retention Shampoo

For an organic, certified cruelty-free option, the experts suggest SheaMoisture's Raw Shea Butter Moisture Retention Shampoo. The formula is recommended for all hair types, especially natural and textured hair in need of a moisture boost.

dark purple shampoo bottle
Image courtesy of Target.

Nexxus Color Assure Silicone & Sulfate Free Shampoo

Frequently washing dyed strands can cause color to fade too soon, so keep your latest hair color trend from becoming dull with a sulfate-free formula that's extra gentle. This salon-quality shampoo is another great option for color-treated hair, and bonus: it won't break the bank.

aveeno shampoo, cream and green bottle
Image courtesy of Walmart.

Aveeno Pure Renewal Shampoo with Seaweed Extract

One reviewer of this shampoo noted how much she loves the way it doesn't weigh down her curls, and of course, how affordable it is. It will remove impurities without stripping hair of the healthy oils it needs to stay hydrated, and it has one of our favorite beachy ingredients: seaweed.

Comments (5)

August 9, 2019
I've been using a sulfate-free shampoo for a few years. I was told that it helps keep your hair curly!
August 9, 2019
I am using a sulfate-free shampoo right now and I have to admit it's taking me a while to get used to the lack of lather, lol!
August 5, 2019
Interesting, thanks for sharing.
August 5, 2019
Not only is this great for us, it is great for the environment as well.
August 5, 2019
i am always looking for an healthy shampoo that is good for my hair and does noy damage it. i apreciate the article.