Many products in the beauty and health aisle claim to be sulfate-free but even more contain it when you check their ingredient list, so what is sulfate, and why is it so controversial?

Sulfate molecules

What is sulfate?

Sulfate is a broad term for other sulfur-based chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth ether sulfate (SLES). These two are most commonly found in cleaning and health-care products. Their main use is to create lather in products and removing dirt and oil from our skin and hairs. Lather creates the bubbles that we normally associate with being clean.

The problem with sulfate is that it can be too good at its job, to the point where it strips out your body’s protective oil as well and drys out your skin and hair. This would cause your hair and scalp to be stripped of its moisture and thus vulnerable to damage, infection, and illness.

How does it exactly do that?

Our hair is covered by this outermost layer of overlapping hair cells called cuticles. They normally lay flat but when sulfate works its way under the cuticle due to weak surface tension, causing to lift. Which exposes the hair cortex to moisture and arid air that causes frizz and dryness. The damaged cortex and cuticle weakens the hair strand, making it dull and damage-prone.

What are their downsides?

Since your cuticle is raised, more moisture can enter your hair and thus increasing its drying time. And if you decide to use a hairdryer, it would mean more damage to your already-damaged hair.

So should I go sulfate-free?

Yes! Since it causes your hair to dry faster, avoiding sulfate will help you in maintaining your hair, that said, removing sulfate only reduces the amount of oil being dried by shampoo as it contains other ingredients that dry your hair as well. It’s hard going sulfate-free however, as many products that claim to be sulfate-free tend to have ingredients that are part of the sulfate family but with a different name, like Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate.

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