Ever scanned the ingredient list on a bottle of shampoo? There are so many difficult-to-pronounce terms on the label that reading it can induce a major headache. However, there’s one shampoo ingredient in particular you've probably heard some buzz about: sulfates.
"Sulfates are harsh chemicals in many personal health products that are used primarily as foam makers and cleaning agents," says Shani Francis, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and hair loss specialist. They'll usually appear on an ingredient list as sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate, and may be abbreviated as SLS.
Sulfates are added to shampoo for a reason—they help de-grease strands, dissolve oil, and give the formula that frothy, foamy quality. But because they work by scrubbing away the body's natural oils, Dr. Francis explains that sulfates may also dry strands, irritate the scalp, and, in extreme cases, cause damage to the cuticle (the hair's outer layer).
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Should you use a shampoo without sulfates?
If your hair tends to be on the oily side and requires daily washing, a regular shampoo is probably fine, says Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist. But she does recommend switching to a sulfate-free shampoo if you have damaged hair (such as from color or keratin treatments), naturally dry hair, or if you struggle with an irritated scalp. For these people in particular, a shampoo that doesn't contain sulfates may be beneficial.
Interested in making the switch to a sulfate-free formula? We’ve rounded up the best sulfate-free shampoos that have been recommended by dermatologists and hairstylists. Here, 14 of their top picks.