What the Heck are Sulfates?



If you've been in any drug or beauty store during the last five years or so, you’ve probably noticed the onslaught of beauty products touting their “sulfate free” properties. So what are sulfates and why should you care about them?

What are they?

Sulfates are cleansing agents found in many household and beauty products. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate are some of the most common sulfates you’ll see on your ingredient labels.

How are they produced?

SLS and SLES are generally derived from coconut or palm oil. The oil is put through a series of chemical reactions in order to obtain the final product.

Why are they used?

Sulfates work as a surfactant which means that they reduce the surface tension of the liquid they're dissolved in (often water). The reduced surface tension makes it easy for oil and/or dirt to be picked up and suspended within the liquid solution which allows for their easy removal - now you know how soap works!

Where can you find them?

Sulfates are commonly used in household cleaning products, beauty and personal care products, and have been since the 1930’s! In more concentrated forms, they can also be found in industrial cleaners such as those used for engine degreasing. They’re effective and inexpensive to produce so they are widely used.

Are they bad for you?

Sulfates are actually rated as a pretty safe chemical (for external use). There were internet rumors floating around for awhile that they caused cancer but like most rumors (especially those on the internet) they were and continue to be completely unsubstantiated. Other than a small chance of mild skin irritation which might affect those with sensitive skin and some definite eye irritation (don’t rub soap in your eyes…?), you’re good to go!

Will they ruin my hair?

The general consensus is that sulfates can leave your hair feeling dry and brittle because they strip your locks of all the oil they need. Here’s the thing though, the replacement chemicals used in many “sulfate-free” products haven’t proven to be any healthier for your hair than sulfates are. If you’re thinking, “Well, gee Dakota, that doesn’t really leave me with many options. What am I supposed to wash my hair with?” you’re in the same boat as I am. Lately I’ve been obsessed with cleansing conditioners, but that’s a topic for another post ;)

If you'd like to learn more about sulfates and the chemistry behind them, check out the awesome sources used for this article:

Sulfates - Paula's Choice

Sulfates - The Cleaning Institute

Sulfate Free Shampoos

Essential Chemical Industry - Surfactants

Thanks for Reading!

#2017 #sulfates #chemistry #ingredients #beauty #haircare #skincare #makeup #science

12 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All