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Are sulfates bad for your hair? We asked an expert and you might be surprised

The ingredient may not be as damaging to your hair as you once thought.
Moyo Studio / Getty Images

When browsing the hair care aisle at any store, you've probably noticed the term "sulfate-free" plastered across many of the bottles lining the shelves. Much like parabens or phthalates, sulfates have become somewhat of a dirty word in the beauty and cleaning industry in the last handful of years. (Mostly due to misinformation and brands pushing toward marketing products as "clean.")

That's why when the cult-favorite beauty brand The Ordinary dropped a line of hair care products a few years ago, it was surprising to see a new Sulphate Shampoo in its lineup. And that got us thinking more about the ingredient. So we tapped Dr. Brendan Camp, a double board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City, to learn more about sulfates and if they are bad for your hair and skin.

What are sulfates? | Are sulfates dangerous? | Are sulfates bad for your hair and scalp? | Who should avoid sulfates? | Sulfate-free shampoos | How we choose | Meet our expert

What are sulfates?

Sulfates are the salts that are formed when sulfuric acid reacts with other chemicals, Camp says. Variations, typically sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), are found in many skin and hair products, from shampoos to body washes.

They're a popular choice in the beauty world because they act as surfactants, Camp says. "This means they aid in the process of lifting oil, debris and dirt from hair shafts and allowing them to be rinsed out easily without leaving a residue." They also help produce that satisfying lather that you get when you scrub in your shampoo.

Are sulfates dangerous?

There have been claims that sodium lauryl sulfate, which is used in cleaners, is a carcinogen and can lead to serious health issues like cancer or infertility. However, both Camp and a study published in Environmental Health Insights journal and listed in the US National Library of Medicine have debunked this claim as a myth.

"The most egregious claim by far is that SLS is carcinogenic [16,32]. The origin of this claim is uncertain, but it is likely to have derived from multiple misinterpretations of the scientific literature. There is no scientific evidence supporting that SLS is a carcinogen," the study read.

Camp echoes the journal publication, saying that there's no evidence linking sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate to serious health issues like cancer or infertility.

Are sulfates bad for your hair and scalp?

The truth is, it depends. A little bit of oil is actually good for your hair, Camp says. It coats your strands and helps make them soft and pliable. Of course, if you have too much, your hair starts to look slick and greasy — and nobody wants that. Sulfates can be an effective tool for helping to remove this excess oil. However, they can also sometimes strip too much from your strands, putting your hair at risk of dryness, potentially making it more fragile and causing it to appear frizzy or dull, he says.

Who should avoid sulfates?

Given its powerful cleansing abilities, people whose hair tends to be on the drier end may want to consider using sulfate-free products. And those with sensitive skin might want to do the same, Camp adds.

While it's not common, Camp says that because of sulfate's cleansing abilities, the ingredient can sometimes lead to skin dryness or irritation, especially in people who have a history of dry skin.

If you fall into either of those categories, you might want to consider a sulfate-free shampoo. While you'll likely notice that sulfate-free products won't lather as much as those that contain the ingredient, they'll still be effective at cleaning, Camp says.

Below, we've rounded up six bestselling and top-rated sulfate-free shampoos to try.

Sulfate-free shampoos

OGX Nourishing + Coconut Milk Moisturizing Shampoo

Having healthy hair doesn't mean having to go off budget. This sulfate-free shampoo from OGX might only be $7, but it still has all the ingredients to strengthen and nourish hair.

L'Oreal Paris EverPure Moisture Sulfate-Free Shampoo

Hydrate your dry strands with the L'Oreal EverPure Moisture Sulfate-Free Shampoo. Made for those with color-treated hair, the gentle formula is designed to cleanse hair without stripping or fading the color, according to the brand. It even includes rosemary Enhance your curls with SheaMoisture’s Curl & Shine Shampoo. The formula is made with coconut oil, which may help replenish any moisture lost during the cleansing process. Even better? It has a dreamy coconut and hibiscus scent, which reviewers say smells “incredible.”

SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl & Shine Shampoo

Enhance your curls with SheaMoisture’s Curl & Shine Shampoo. The formula is made with coconut oil, which may help replenish any moisture lost during the cleansing process. Even better? It has a dreamy coconut and hibiscus scent, which reviewers say smells “incredible.”

Odele Ultra-Sensitive Shampoo

Some shampoo formulations can be irritating to users with sensitive skin, so Odele created a product specifically formulated to work with their needs. According to the brand, the formula is extra gentle, free from synthetic fragrances and even approved by the National Eczema Association.

Native Citrus & Herbal Musk Shampoo

Another frugal favorite, this pick from Native is free of sulfates, parabens, silicone, dyes and is cruelty-free according to the brand. Coming in just under $13, you can't go wrong.

WOW Skin Science Apple Cider Vinegar Shampoo

Apple cider vinegar is said to have a range of benefits for the hair, and experts say the ingredient may be good for anyone dealing with a dry, flaky or itchy scalp. When one Shop TODAY writer tried this shampoo, she said she was wowed by the results, adding that it helped her hair look and feel "healthier than ever before."

Verb Ghost Shampoo

If your hair is in desperate need of treatment, but you hate the feeling of weighed-down locks, Verb has you covered. Its “weightless” formula is made to protect hair and keep it hydrated, all while making it feel lightweight and healthy, according to the brand. And did we mention that it’s safe to use on colored hair?

OUAI Detox Shampoo

With ingredients like apple cider vinegar and hydrolyzed keratin, this shampoo is made to remove residue and product buildup as well as reduce frizz, for smoother and healthier hair. Even without the sulfates, you still get a pretty satisfying lather with this product, according to one Shop TODAY writer. "Massaging this into my hair not only feels like it's soaking up all of the gunk and impurities but also giving my scalp new life," she added. "Plus, the scent is amazing."

Pureology Hydrate Moisturizing Shampoo

If you’re someone who routinely dyes their hair, you know how drying the process can be. This hydrating shampoo is designed to revive color-treated hair by giving it a much-needed dose of moisture. The brand says it’s an excellent choice for all hair textures, including coily hair.

Pura D'Or Biotin Anti-Thinning Shampoo & Conditioner Set

Looking for a new shampoo and conditioner? Grab this popular set from Pura d'Or. The sulfate and phthalate-free formulas promise to help strengthen and thicken your locks. Made for both men and women, the products feature hair-healthy ingredients like biotin, nettle extract, pumpkin seeds and more.

Kérastase Smoothing Anti-Frizz Sulfate-Free Shampoo

Kérastase is known for having top-of-the-line hair care products and this shampoo is no exception. One reviewer wrote, "The health of my hair has been the best it ever has since I’ve been using this shampoo." What more could you ask for?

How we choose

The Shop TODAY editors and writers search the internet to find the best products out there. We interview expert sources and use our own personal experiences with products and brands to make shopping easier for our readers.

Meet our expert

  • Dr. Brendan Camp, MD, is double board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City. He specializes in managing acne, rosacea, eczema, warts, psoriasis, moles, and skin cancer.