Perhaps even more so than silicones, sulfates top the list of “no-no” ingredients in beauty products, with many brands touting that they are free of this spurned additive as a selling point for wary customers.
Unfortunately, sulfates are the victim of the rapid spread of information online and rose to infamy in the late 1990s as a carcinogenic toxin with long-term health consequences. While the FDA has debunked these misnomers, they seem to have settled in our collective conscience, giving sulfates an undeserved negative connotation and masking the real issue with using the product.
What Are Sulfates?
Sulfates are a classification of natural and manufactured mineral salts derived from sulfur. They are highly effective surfactants that bind water to pollutants like oil and dirt, helping increase water’s cleansing factor.
Despite their bad-boy reputation, sulfates are prevalent in much more than our beauty products and serve much of the same purpose: making oils more water soluble and creating piles of luxurious lather. For that reason, you’ll find surfactants like sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLS) in hand soap, toothpaste, laundry detergent, dish soap, and many other cleansing products.
Myth or Truth #1: Cancer, cataracts, and organ toxicity are linked to sulfate usage.
Despite the plentiful rumors perpetuated by beauty products brands and circulated on social media, the sulfates in consumer products are not hazardous to our health, even when used daily.
While there’s no one clear origin for this rapid spread of misinformation, most researchers chalk it up to misinterpretation of scientific data about highly concentrated levels of particular types of sulfates or experiments into how other chemicals react with them.
For example, one commonly referenced study is Birt’s Inhibition by dietary selenium of colon cancer induced in the rat by bis(2-oxypropyl) nitrosamine. The research group used SLS as a soluble liquid vehicle for the actual carcinogenic chemical in question– nitrosamine. Because sulfates were involved in the scientific process, those unfamiliar with the jargon-heavy language and overall findings naturally linked the presence of SLS with carcinogens.
However, SLS is not listed on official toxic materials lists published by the EPA, California Prop 65, U.S. National Toxicology Program, or the Federation of European Toxicologists & European Societies of Toxicology.
Similarly, the cataract rumors stem from a Lens and Eye Toxicity Research article. One featured study found high concentrations of SLS can slow corneal healing, a fact that was “spun” by a beauty brand to promote sulfate-free formulations, eventually leading to a libel lawsuit for the intentional spread of misinformation.
Finally, sulfates have been incorrectly cited as accumulating in the organs, causing long-term damage, because a Cosmetic Ingredient Review report noted SLS could be absorbed by the skin in small amounts. Still, it is quickly metabolized by the liver.
Myth or Truth #2: Sulfates can dry out your hair and skin.
For most people, sulfate’s worst offense is frizzy hair and itchy skin because of its ability to dissolve lipids. That means that scrubbing away excessive oil build-up can work a little too well, stripping away natural oils that keep our hair and skin hydrated.
Those with sensitive skin may find that removing sulfates can help clear up redness, irritation, and acne, as their tendency to wipe out oils could prove too harsh for a temperamental complexion. The same can be said for those with naturally dry hair, as it already struggles to maintain healthy moisture levels, and stripping it down only exacerbates the issue. There are plenty of other options, like Revision Skincare’s amino acid-based surfactant in their Gentle Foaming Cleanser.
If you struggle with excessive oiliness, sulfates might be just what you need to get that squeaky-clean feeling. Just be sure to follow up with a strict moisturizer and conditioner regimen to rebalance your hydration levels.
Myth or Truth #3: Because sulfate-free products don’t lather, they’re not effective cleansers.
We tend to associate a fluffy lather with cleanliness, but bubbles aren’t actually necessary for an effective cleanse. That’s why many sulfate-free brands swap out these detergents for gentler options, some of which create suds, like coconut-based sodium lauroyl methyl isethionate and decyl glucoside, and some that don’t, like sodium lauroyl glutamate and sodium lauroamphoacetate.
All of these options, and many other sulfates replacements, do the same essential function of SLES and SLF quite effectively by attracting both water and lipids, but without the harsh formulation that removes your natural oils.