What are sulfates?

Sulfates are essentially detergents. When used in soaps, they leave skin feeling clean and refreshed. In shampoos, sulfates create a frothy lather that removes dirt, oil and styling product buildup from the hair and scalp. The result is hair that feels fresh and lightweight.

Why the concern?.

Turns out that sulfates can be too effective at washing away oil, which can leave hair or skin feeling a little parched. And if your skin or scalp is particularly sensitive, sulfates can cause irritations like redness or itching.

Hair is made of protein — in fact, hair itself is a protein filament. About 91 percent of each of your hair fibers is protein, along with numerous other nutrients. When the protein that makes up each of your hairs is damaged, it can weaken the hair, affecting its strength and appearance.

Who should avoid sulfates?

For the most part, the effects of sulfates are mild, and many people benefit from the effectiveness of shampoos that contain them. People with especially greasy hair or dandruff may notice that shampoos containing sulfates are the only products that clean their hair effectively.

However, some people should avoid sulfates and choose sulfate-free options. These people include:

People with sensitive skin or skin conditions

A person with a sensitive scalp or sensitive hair may experience strong drying effects from sulfates. Those with a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis who use shampoo containing sulfates may also experience itching, redness, and cracking in their scalp after use.

People with dry, frizzy hair

People with naturally dry, curly, or frizzy hair may want to avoid sulfates. Sulfates could increase the dryness and frizziness of hair due to increased friction caused by the stripping of the natural oils and moisture.

People with dyed and chemically altered hair

People who color their hair or regularly straighten or curl it may want to avoid sulfates as these processes can damage the hair. Finding ways to prevent any additional stress or dryness in the hair can help keep it healthy.

Shampoo containing sulfates may also strip the color from dyed hair more quickly.


Sulfates are effective and safe when used as directed in wash-off cosmetics like shampoo and soap. For people with sensitive hair and skin, shampoos containing sulfates may cause some mild side effects, such as dry, brittle hair, and dryness or redness of the scalp.

Sulfates do have the potential to leave hair and skin feeling dry, depending on their concentration and what other hydrating ingredients are in a product.