What are Sulfates?
Sulfates are a type of surfactant, which are like detergents for skincare products. In other words, they help cleanse the skin of dirt and oil, and help many liquid soaps, body washes and shampoos to create a rich, foamy lather. Although “sulfates” aren’t technically a class of chemicals, the term is often used as a stand in to talk about harsh surfactants since many of those chemicals have “sulfate” in the ingredient name (e.g. sodium lauryl sulfate).
Surfactants and “sulfates” are also found in many moisturizers and sunscreens, because they help ingredients mix well together, instead of clumping or separating in the bottle.
Some sulfates are synthetic, meaning they are man-made and come from petroleum, while others come from natural sources like palm oil or coconut oil. Regardless of where they come from, some of them can do major harm to your skin, hair and scalp. Not all sulfates are evil, but I do avoid all harsh sulfates and here’s why.
How do Harsh Sulfates Impact your Skin?
Some sulfates can be very irritating. If used in high enough concentrations, they can damage the outer layers of your skin, resulting in itchy, cracked, dry or inflamed skin. They very rarely create true allergies, but they can be a major cause of irritation.
In shampoos, harsh sulfates can irritate the scalp and result in frizzy, dull hair. They can even make your hair dye disappear quickly, making your trips to the salon more frequent.
What about your Microbiome?
If you continue to cleanse with harsh sulfate-containing products, this is also likely to damage your skin’s microbiome. The healthy bacteria on your skin need a certain environment, or “terrain” to survive and thrive. When you wash away and damage their terrain, these delicate bacteria die and unhealthy, hearty ones remain and take over – we do not want this to happen!
How do I know what to look for on the label?
Sodium lauryl sulfate is a particularly harsh sulfate, so I recommend avoiding that one whenever possible. Other sulfates contain an “-eth” at the end of them, like sodium laureth sulfate and aluminum laureth sulfate. When chemicals end in “-eth”, that means they’ve been put through a process called “ethoxylation” to make them less harsh, and make the ingredient more gentle on your skin. Now the catch is, during the process of ethoxylation, you sometimes end up with low levels of a contaminant, specifically, 1, 4 dioxane, that is a carcinogen. 1,4 doixane doesn’t appear on ingredient labels.
So, even though some of these sulfates that end with an -eth are more gentle for the skin, there is a risk that they mght contain tiny levels of carcinogens, which is something I’m not comfortable with. So, not only do I avoid harsh sulfates, but I also avoid ingredients that end with “-eth.”
My Bottom Line
Avoid Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Avoid Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES)
Avoid any chemical names that end with “-eth.”