Shopping for beauty products when you are worried about what’s in them can be overwhelming. We are constantly being told to avoid a host of ingredients for various reasons. Simply take a walk down any hair care aisle and you’ll see products boldly stating: “sulfate-free” or “SLS-free”. But why exactly are we avoiding SLS? It is still widely available in a host of personal care products like toothpaste, handwashes and body washes. Is it really such a big deal?
What exactly are sulfates?
The most common sulfates found in skincare or personal care items are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES). SLES is similar to SLS but has been through an extra process that makes it a bit gentler. There are more than a hundred different kinds, some synthetic and some derived from natural sources. There are two main reasons why this ingredient is used. First, it allows a product to lather, foam up or make bubbles. And second, it is a very effective cleaning agent, breaking down and removing any and all oils and dirt from hair and skin, leaving them feeling squeaky clean.
So, what’s the problem then?
They can be a little bit too good at cleaning. Because it is so effective at breaking down and removing dirt and grease it also strips away important needed natural oils produced by the skin. It has been shown to be drying and irritating - but not allergenic, to eyes and skin in some human studies. And people with sensitivity or skin conditions like eczema or dermatitis are often more prone to having a reaction.
Does SLS strip colour from your hair?
The biggest reason people seem to avoid SLS is because of the belief that it strips hair of colour. This is not entirely true. Sulfates can contribute to hair colour fading, but it by no means extracts the colour from the hair.
When you wet hair, the strands become soaked causing it to swell, forcing the cuticles to open. All hair has a natural lipid layer that protects it and prevents too much water from entering or escaping it, keeping the moisture balance of your hair intact. Colouring your hair destroys this barrier and to recreate it you have to use moisturising shampoos, conditioners and masks, in other words products that contains lipids or oils. When you use a product that contains SLS it will remove any natural oils left and strip the artificial barrier created by the moisturising products used to try and recreate it. This will allow water to penetrate the hair strand each time it gets wet and cause the dye to slowly escape and the result is hair colour that fades faster.
Is SLS bad for the environment?
Actually, SLS is biodegradable and depending on its origin (plant-based vs synthetic) it will have different environmental effects. For instance, it can be derived from either coconut oil or palm oil, the latter being very controversial and a leading cause of deforestation. SLS can also be derived from petroleum, which is nonrenewable. The ideal would be that brands are totally transparent about where they source their ingredients from. Lush choose to exclude SLS from the majority of their products due to the environmental effects of palm oil and are working on developing a surfactant that is completely palm-free.
So, the bottom line is…
If you have dry skin, curly, kinky, dry or afro hair and or are prone to sensitivity it’s better to opt for sulfate-free products. Just don’t expect loads of foam or bubbles as the cleansers used in SLS free products foam little to nothing. If your goal is to be environmentally conscious make sure you do your research, as a brand that is upfront regarding their ingredients and where they come from will be open about it.