What Exactly Is Sulfate — and What Does It Do?
Your full explainer and guide to one of the buzziest words in the beauty world.
In the clean beauty world, there are a lengthy list of rules to follow and harmful ingredients to avoid, so it certainly can be difficult to keep track of it all and determine which rumors are true and which are beauty myths
One ingredient in question comes to mind: sulfate. What is it, is it bad, and should we avoid it? If you find yourself asking these questions during your next trip down the beauty aisle, you're in the right place. We consulted the experts to find out what sulfate really and if it's bad once and for all. Read on for your full explainer about the frequently avoided ingredient that may not be all that bad after all.
What Is Sulfate and What Products Is It Found In?
Technically speaking, a sulfate is part of a molecule made up of a sulfur atom and four oxygen atoms, according to cosmetic chemist and founder of The Beauty Brains Perry Romanowski. But more simply put, in the cosmetic world this molecule is simply referred to as a sulfate. The most common found in beauty products is sodium lauryl sulfate. Romanowski says this ingredient is often seen mostly in rinse-off products, like cleansers, shampoos, and soaps.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is responsible for the sudsy, foamy lather you get when using these products, says Dr. Stacy Chimento, board-certified Miami-based dermatologist and founder of Riverchase Dermatology.
"It can help cleanse better by acting as a detergent to remove oils and creating a foamy lather," Dr. Chimento tells us. "The foamy lather allows a little bit of product to go a long way."
She adds that it can also be used as solvent, emulsifier, and skin-conditioning agent, as well as remove makeup and fight bacteria because of antimicrobial properties.
Is Sulfate Bad?
Unfortunately the answer is not a simple "yes" or "no." The truth is, it depends on a number of things, like your skin's reaction to it, how you're using it, and the quantity of which you're using it. Romanowski says that in a rinse-off product, there shouldn't be much risk of harm unless your skin has a reaction to it.
On the other hand, Dr. Chimento does warn that the ingredient could lead to both topical and internal irritation, including in the eyes, lungs, and mouth, as well as in the form of skin rashes, acne, and clogged pores, hormone disruptions, headaches, dizziness, psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis. She adds that it may also strip the skin of its natural oils, which could lead to irritation or dryness.
Dr. Chimento adds that the risk of irritation highly depends on the concentration of the molecule in a product. So the more concentrated a product is, the more likely it is that your skin will become irritated.
If you find that products with sulfate are irritating to your hair or skin, or worse: causing you to have an allergic reaction, you should not use products and others that contain the ingredient. Someone with already dry or damaged hair should also consider avoiding shampoos and other hair products that contain sulfate because they can strip your strands of their much-needed natural oils. "Sulfates can be taxing on compromised scalps, and weakened, fragile hair," explains hairstylist Tony Chavez. "They tend to dry out the skin, as well as the hair follicle." Dry hair doesn't need to lather up as frequently, so consider incorporating a cleansing conditioner into your lineup, then use a gentle, and obviously sulfate-free, shampoo once a week to nurse your strands to a more hydrated state.
What Are Some Sulfate Substitutes?
If you do find that sulfate is irritating to your skin or hair, there are plenty of sulfate-free products on the market. While you may have to compromise on a super sudsy lather, you will also probably find that your hair and skin are less dry since sulfate-free products most likely will not strip your hair and skin of their natural oils. Scroll on for some of our favorite sulfate-free products that actually work.