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What Are Sulfates and Do They Really Damage Your Hair?

Hear us out—they’re actually not that bad!
What Are Sulfates and Do They Really Damage Your Hair?
IMAGE Mark Buenaobra
Hear us out—they’re actually not that bad!

I used to be an anti-sulfate advocate. Years of coloring my hair has made me into the kind of person who’s protective about my hair color. I was into serious dyeing: salon-done, the kind you get precious about. Heck, if I could get away with it I wouldn’t wash my hair (yeah, gross, I know). In any case, I understand sulfate hate. I mean, you’re coming from a place where you shell out thousands in pesos and hours of your time, trying to make your hair look nourished/healthy/unnaturally colored and glossy when it's secretly damaged. But here’s the thing—sulfates may have its cons, and they’re real, but there are some things about it that are just sensationalized. We’re hear to help sulfates clean up the one thing they can’t—their act!

What are sulfates anyway?

Sulfates are surfactants, which means they are an ingredient with molecules that attract water and oil—essentially, sulfate is that friend who drops by the really bad party that is your unwashed mane, and it creates enough, er, chemistry to convince water and dirt to leave the party all together. It’s a win-win. Supposedly.

The most common types are sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate. If these sound familiar, it’s because they’ve been used in the formulas of household ingredients since the time when your only reading material in the bathroom was the back of product bottles. Sulfates are really good cleaning agents; they thicken easily and are readily available for cheap—this is why most products have it.

How did it get a bad rep?

Like we said, sulfates get their cleaning job done really well. But because it’s a strong detergent (yup, the suds make sense now), not only does it leave your hair and skin really dry, but it’s a major eye irritant, too, and may even cause a rash if you’re hypersensitive. All of this happens because sulfates denature the natural proteins found in your skin and hair—basically stripping you of your natural oils. (That squeaky clean feel? Confirmed, your face wash has sulfates.)

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There are scientific journals that publish studies on sulfates, saying they're so dangerous they can lead to eye problems and even cancer. But in the end they also note that this will only happen if you leave it on for long and never rinse it off. Which, you know, nobody does with their shampoos and soap.

The bottom line?

Truthfully, sulfates are not the cosmetic ingredient devil! However, it is still one of the ingredients you should watch out for in your hair products if you have a) dry, b) damaged, and c) colored hair. But do take note—all shampoos that are rinsed out, whether SLS-free or not, will fade your hair color because you still have to wash it out with water in the end. Sulfates just happen to be way better at getting your hair squeaky clean, a clean that also washes your dye job away.

If you’re using products with sulfates and they work for you, then that’s cool. But if it doesn’t work for you, then skip it—nobody wants their thousand-peso dye job literally seeping down the drain faster than it should. 

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