Sulfate-free: it’s lately all the rage in popular haircare and cosmetics products. But let’s investigate the trend further. Is this just an advertising trend, or is there truly importance in avoiding these substances? Deeper research into the matter would support the latter conclusion, with a resounding “yes.”
What are sulfates?
The issue with sulfates begins with their purpose in the many products in which they appear. In a word, sulfates are “surfactants.”
The word “surfactant” is actually an abbreviation standing for “surface active agents.” These are chemicals that help to increase the “wetness” of water by reducing its surface tension. Less tension allows water to better surround dirt and muck in order to remove them from a surface — your hair, your kitchen counter, etc.
The “sulfate-free” conversation centers around two widely used surfactants, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). The difference between the two of them is negligible, but you can think of SLES as a somewhat less harsh version of SLS. Both surfactants, however, have drawn criticism in the beauty and wellness communities for their impact on hair and health.
Their cheap cost and effectiveness as surfactants have made SLS and SLES common ingredients for manufacturers of virtually any product that foams or lathers: shampoos, conditioners, dish soaps, toothpastes, moisturizers and more. Being great surfactants, SLS and SLES are brilliant at removing oils and dirt. But they also can create serious dryness and irritation, particularly on the skin and scalp. These chemicals may also rob hair of its color and sheen.
What is the problem with sulfates?
The main danger sulfates hold is the presence of toxic by-products that can be created from the sulfate production process. From their synthesis, these by-products can then go on to contaminate your beauty products.
1.4-dioxane and nitrosamines are the two primary culprits. Not only are they considered carcinogenic by the EPA and National Toxicology Program, but they also have been shown to disrupt hormonal balance, incite reproductive and developmental concerns, and seriously pollute the environment. These compounds are by-products of both SLS and SLES production processes and are therefore commonly found alongside them. This stands as the fundamental reason you should avoid sulfates at all costs.
Another major danger of SLS and SLES is their ability to maximize absorption of properties into the body through the skin. These surfactants make it easier for whatever is in a given product to seep through your pores. So it’s not just that SLS and SLES are troublesome. They make it easier for other chemicals or toxic substances in a product to wreak havoc as well.
“Substances such as SLS are known to be absorbed into body tissues [themselves],” claims Dr. Mitchell A. Kline in the popular book, “No More Dirty Looks.” Pregnant women and mothers can put the dots together here: sulfates can affect your children, both in and out of the womb.
SLS and SLES also comprise your skin’s immune response. By penetrating the skin, these surfactants interfere with skin quality and reduce how well the organ can deal with germs and microbes.
Unfortunately the FDA is not on consumers’ sides here. Though the organization strongly recommends that manufacturers abandon their use of SLS and SLES, no enforced ban has been placed. Not even a maximum-use level or law has been established for cosmetics products.
The burden to remain vigilant about sulfates and toxic chemicals in our products remains squarely on us. We have to exercise scrutiny when it comes to sidestepping shampoos, conditioners, and other products that may include sulfates, particularly because the substances are so widespread.
Tips on Avoiding Sulfates
Play the name game. SLS and SLES are only two of the terms by which product labels can mention these ingredients. Other names for them can include anything with phrases like “sulfate,” “sulfuric acid,” “sodium salt sulfuric acid,” “PEG,” “oleth,” “cetareth,” and “xynol.”
Check the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. The Environmental Working Group stands at the forefront of consumer awareness, especially in the beauty field. Their database lets you check any and all cosmetics for harmful properties.
And most obviously: Read your product labels, and choose sulfate-free whenever possible.
Going sulfate-free should be a no-brainer option for health-conscious moms and moms to be, particularly in their shampoos and conditioners. Sulfate-free haircare proves gentler on your skin, will not cause hair color to fade, and will retain your hair’s natural oils, helping to avoid dryness.
A Sulfate-free Beauty Solution
Sulfate-free hair products are not all perfect. Remember that SLS and SLES did have a good side: they are excellent at stripping dirt from hair, leaving it cleaner. Many sulfate-free shampoos don’t clean the hair as thoroughly as their sulfate-laden alternatives. This can potentially be problematic for those of us with oily hair; it could mean using more products to get the job done, which could add up fairly quickly.
Nine Naturals thought long and hard about this exact issue. Our Citrus + Mint Nourishing Shampoo and Citrus + Geranium Soothing Body Wash strike the optimal balance in chemical-free, sulfate-free haircare and bodycare. They are plant-based with winning all-natural alternatives, ensuring you beautifully clean hair and skin with every wash.
Check out our transparent and in-depth ingredients glossary, where you can learn more about the all-natural compounds we use instead of sulfates. We call our alternative the environmentally conscious and completely natural “surfactant blend.”
The blend is comprised of sodium cocoyl isethionate, sodium methyl cocoyl taurate, sodium lauroamphoacetate, and sorbitan sesquicaprylate. All of these ingredients are naturally derived from coconut. They promote lathering and foaming in our shampoo and conditioner, without the harmful effect of sulfates and other artificial chemicals. You can find even more information about these ingredients in our glossary.
How will you avoid sulfates in your cosmetics products, while maintaining great-looking results at the same time?
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