Scan the ingredients list of your favorite personal care product, and you’re likely to find sulfates. Sulfates are detergents, or surfactants, commonly found in products like shampoo, body wash, face cleanser, and toothpaste.
Despite the commonality of sulfate, there’s been a steady increase in sulfate-free products, and if you’re wondering what are sulfates, and whether you should be avoiding them, Teen Vogue turned to the experts, getting answers on whether sulfates are bad for you, what sulfates do to your hair, and whether you should be investing in sulfate-free items.
What are sulfates?
Sulfates, which have been used in personal-care products since the 1950s, are “the most commonly used detergents in the beauty industry,” says cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski.
The most common sulfate-based ingredients found in personal care products are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. “Sulfates act on the hair surface to remove dirt, sebum, and other product residues, and they also have properties that enable lather,” explains Pantene senior scientist Rolanda Johnson Wilkerson, PhD.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate vs. Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Karen Fields-Lever, a dentist based in Chicago, explained how sodium lauryl sulfate works, saying, “[It’s] a degreaser in a sense. It allows for the food particles to be aided in their transition from our mouth, helping to achieve that ‘clean’ feel. It gives that nice foaming action that we are known to get while brushing,”
Cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski adds that “sodium laureth sulfate is a milder version, so it is not as irritating, but it doesn’t clean as well, either.” That being said, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. “Often formulators include both to get the cleaning power of sodium lauryl sulfate and reduced irritation level of sodium laureth sulfate,” Romanowski says.
David Lortscher, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and cofounder and CEO of Curology notes that sodium laureth sulfate is often used in skin and hair products because it imparts a high degree of foaming capacity to the product and a feeling of softness on the skin. And, he says, “if you tend to get clogged pores or acne breakouts, read labels and avoid sodium lauryl sulfate in skin and hair-care products. It appears that sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl ether sulfate may be less likely to incite acne.”
Are sulfates bad for you?
The biggest issue with sulfates is that they can cause varying levels of skin and eye irritation, which (for the people who experience it) gets worse the longer the product is in contact with the skin. “Sulfates can often dry out the skin, and some people find they may lead to more acne when their skin is in frequent contact with sodium lauryl sulfate,” explains Dr. Lortscher. “This is typically less of a problem with body skin [versus face skin], so most people tolerate sodium lauryl sulfate in body washes.”
Sulfates in toothpaste could also potentially be to blame for some symptoms inside your mouth as well. “Sodium lauryl sulfate can cause or irritate existing allergies, canker sores, and bad breath,” Dr. Fields-Lever says. And, she notes, “there are some professionals [who] feel sodium lauryl sulfate can be harmful to the mucosa [gums and cheeks] of the mouth.”