Your delicate hair is not meant to be scrubbed as if it's in a drive-thru carwash. Which is why a gentler shampooing option, sulfate-free shampoo, is gaining in popularity as a healthier way to clean hair. Commonly found in many shampoos, sulfates, such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate, are widely used because they're inexpensive and effective cleaning agents that soap and lather like detergent. But the effects can be hard on your hair.
"Sulfate is very strong," says hairstylist Yuksel Sahin, owner of Sanat Hair Salon in New York City. It has even greater impact, he adds, when steam from a hot shower opens the pores of the scalp, allowing products with sulfate to infiltrate even deeper. He noticed his clients, especially those with sensitive skin, had reactions to sulfates, including an itchy scalp, scabbing near the base of the neck, dry tresses and hair loss—problems that can happen even with expensive shampoos. Sahin relies on a roster of sulfate-free products (though he recommends checking the label first, as some sulfate-free brands still contain traces of SLS).
Nature's Version of Soap
Now more widely available, sulfate-free shampoos rely on naturally derived ingredients, such as chamomile, rosemary extract, ginseng and aloe, to cleanse hair.
Ouidad Climate Control Defrizzing Shampoo, for example, is infused with cleansing agents that are naturally derived from coconut and glucose to cleanse the scalp, and Blow Pro Hydraquench Daily Hydrating Shampoo uses pure proteins, including wheat and amaranth, to moisturize and condition, while lupine adds essential nutrients to hair.
Another problem with sulfate is that it can strip highlighted hair of its lustrous color, which makes a sulfate-free formula like Alterna Bamboo Color Hold + Vibrant Color Shampoo appealing for its patented hemp technology that protects hair from damage and strengthens locks.
Don't Judge a Shampoo by the Lather
The most visible difference with sulfate-free shampoos is that many do not lather in the same manner of traditional shampoos (remember the sudsy scalps seen in shampoo commercials?). Some may contain an alternative foaming ingredient to make up for the sulfate, but realize that foam is not essential to get hair squeaky clean. "If it doesn't foam, people feel like it doesn't really clean your hair, but that's not true," Sahin says.