Scared Of Sulfates?


Seeing that we're all here together on a beauty site, talking about beauty things, I'll just ask my question straight up: Who among us has not been made to fear the dreaded sulfates? For a while, I thought it was just a curly-haired person issue. To read anything on the Internet for people with kinky, coarse, or dry hair is to tacitly extol the virtue of the suds-less wash—a technique I found so mediocre that I resorted to not using shampoo. At all. For years.

I've since come around, and my scalp thanks me for it. (Not using shampoo equals scalp buildup like you wouldn't believe.) But the nice thing about not shampooing was, at least momentarily, ignoring the whole SLS/SLES thing altogether. Welcome shampoo back into your shower, and watch the chemical-based comment warfare come back in spades.

A few weeks ago, I pulled Dina Hasanovic, a colorist at the Mark Garrison Salon, aside to confide in her: I really have no idea what's so bad about sulfates, for the love of God please help me. Luckily her answer was simple enough for me to deal with. Long story short, if you feel like your shampoo is drying you out for whatever reason (it's colored, chemically treated, or just dry by nature), try a natural shampoo—an easy route to something formulated without sulfates. “That's the real benefit in my mind,” she said. “It forces you to look at the ingredient list and find something with glucoside and glycerin,” both of which are organic compounds.

What was refreshing was that she didn't write off sulfates unilaterally. “A shampoo that has sulfates and gets up a good lather is going to get in the hair's cuticle and clean everything out,” she said, right before asking me how often I shampoo ( the dreaded question! ). She said I could probably cut back from using my standard sulfate-full shampoo to about every six washes, or roughly once a month. “I love how my hair feels after a clarifying shampoo,” she continued. “In the winter I might switch to something gentler, because everything feels dry. But in the summer I like to take out everything the humidity deposits,” With hair, as with life, sometimes a clean slate is necessary.

So if you've long been wondering how exactly you're supposed to feel about SLS etc., here's the moral of the story: Don't fear the sulfate. Just know when to use it properly.

—Emily Ferber

Photographed by Tom Newton.