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Is sulphate-free really better?

Article from Times Beauty section - Victoria Hall, Beauty Editor. 

The term “sulphate-free” is the latest talking point in the hair care industry. While concern over the use of the chemicals in shampoos isn’t new, interest has peaked over the past six months, mirroring the rise in popularity for “natural” beauty. Peruse the shelves in any department store hair department or salon, and you’d be hard pressed to find a brand not touting their new “free-from” formula that promises you the hair you’ve always dreamed of in one wash.

But should we really be reading the back of our shampoo bottles to avoid sulphates, or is this just yet another marketing technique? I asked a handful of brands and experts to weigh in on the subject.

What is a sulphate?

Sulphates are cleansing agents, and you can find them in anything from your shampoo and toothpaste to car wash soaps and floor cleaners – though the latter contain much higher concentrations, of course.

When it comes to your shampoo, sulphates (also called SLS) are to thank for the lathering-up effect so popular in TV ads, and they also rinse away any product build-up and excess oil in your hair – brands use them because they’re cheap and because they work.

Sulphates are, have been, and will continue to be ‘go-to’ cleansing agents for many years to come because they are very effective, have passed all the safety regulations, and can be easily formulated with other ingredients into a gentle shampoo,’ says Rachel Zipperian, Herbal Essences scientist. On the ingredients list of your shampoo, they’ll read as sodium laureth sulphate, sodium lauryl sulphate, ammonium lareth sulphate and myreth sulphate.

What’s the issue?

Advocates of natural beauty have been voicing their concerns over the use of sulphates in our shampoos for years, as the chemicals have been linked – though nothing has been proven yet – to cancer. Sulphates are known to dry out your hair and are widely accused of causing irritation and acerbating eczema. They also cause uncomfortable stinging if you get any in your eyes when you’re rinsing out your hair.

The experts I polled stopped short of berating sulphates, though. Steven Shiel, L’Oreal UK’s director of scientific affairs and the man behind Kérastase’s first sulphate-free range, said: “Sulphates are not inherently bad; they’ve been used in hair care products for many decades. But we listen to our consumers, and they wanted natural products with the absence of certain ingredients – in particular, sulphates, silicones and parabens”.

Adam Reed, celebrity hair stylist and founder of Percy and Reed, read from a similar hymn sheet. “I’m not necessarily against the use of sulphates, but a lot of our clients were asking for a sulphate-free formula, so we offer both.” His Perfectly Perfecting Wonder Cleanse and Nourish is an inventive twist on the co-cleanse trend (shampooing and conditioning in one product) that took off in the US last year, and uses aloe to wash away any dirt, oil and leftover product.

What are your options?

There are a myriad of sulphate-free formulas available, including Pureology and Kerastase. While they tend to be more expensive, they are much milder and don’t leave your scalp dry or itchy. It’s worth noting that they don’t lather up as much, either, so if you have finer hair you might need to shampoo twice, or wash your hair more regularly to rinse away excess natural oils that can restrict volume.

‘Customers who want to avoid sulphates should look for ingredients like decyl glucoside, cocamidopropyl betaine, and ocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, which are free of residual sulphates,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. Those who want to try a natural formula without having to spend too much money or time reading up on the ingredients, look to baby shampoos, such as Childs Farm.

If you don’t want to eliminate sulphates entirely, Herbal Essences, TreSemme and L’Oreal Paris are actively trying to lower their use of the chemicals with their latest offerings, but still offer the effective products we’re used to.

Whether you’re for or against sulphates, Shiel has two key tips for anyone looking to buy a new shampoo. “Generally, ingredients higher up the list are there in higher concentrations,” he says. “And remember that companies develop shampoo and conditioners to complement each other.”

My conclusion? All things in moderation


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