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Sulfates are the antihero of hair care —are they actually a problem?

Some say this common hair care ingredient should be avoided, so we asked experts to weigh in.
Kara Birnbaum/ NBC News

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Are sulfates the enemy of healthy hair? The chemical compound, commonly used in shampoos and other hair care products, has a bad reputation. But the truth is not as black and white: sulfates are sometimes ok for some hair types. That’s pretty wishy-washy, especially when you’re trying to shop for a new hair care product. 

To get to the bottom of it, we talked to dermatologists and asked them to weigh in on whether sulfates are actually bad for your hair.

SKIP AHEAD What are sulfates? | Are sulfates bad for your hair? | What hair types should avoid sulfates? | Our favorite sulfate-free shampoos

What are sulfates? 

Sulfates are a common ingredient in skin and hair care. They’re used often because of their ability to act as surfactants, says Dr. Brendan Camp, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City. Surfa-what? That’s a fancy word for chemical compounds acting as a cleansing agent — exactly what sulfates do. 

Sulfates are most commonly used in shampoos because they “aid in the process of lifting oil, debris and dirt from hair shafts and allowing them to be rinsed out easily without leaving a residue,” says Camp, who points out that sulfates can also be found in conditioners and hair masks. 

The most common sulfates used in hair products are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). 

Are sulfates bad for your hair?

Sulfates aren’t bad for all hair types all of the time. For example, when hair has a lot of product buildup or oil, a shampoo with sulfates can effectively cleanse strands. However, their ability to cleanse is a double-edged sword and can make them not-so-great for certain hair types.  “Sulfates are known to strip natural oils from the hair and scalp, which can lead to dryness, irritation, and damage,” says Dr. Anna Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist in Miami, Florida. 

What hair types should avoid sulfates? 

If sulfates strip away too much of your hair’s natural oil, it can lead to dryness or brittleness. Because of this, those with already dry, damaged or overly-processed hair should skip shampoos and other hair products with sulfates. The same goes for those with coarser hair textures, which tend to be on the drier side naturally. If you already have dry hair, using a shampoo with sulfates regularly can make it more fragile and cause it to appear frizzy or dull, says Camp. 

You should also proceed with caution if you have sensitive skin. Sulfates can sometimes lead to scalp skin redness and irritation in stripping natural oils, says Camp. Those with color-treated hair may also want to avoid shampoos containing sulfates. “They can also cause color-treated hair to fade faster, as they remove the color along with dirt and oil,” says Chacon. 

Our favorite sulfate-free shampoos

If you have dry hair or think your hair could benefit from a sulfate-free shampoo, consider shopping for one of these top-rated options. 

Olaplex No.4C Bond Maintenance Clarifying Shampoo

This Olaplex shampoo, which made our list of best clarifying shampoos,  is free of sulfates, color-safe and has a 4.7-star average rating from over 1,200 reviews at Sephora. It is ideal for those who want to remove buildup without totally stripping hair. This shampoo is intended to be used as a weekly treatment to remove any scalp buildup, including excess oil, heavy metals and chlorine, according to Olaplex. Apply this on wet hair and begin focusing it on the scalp. Let the shampoo sit for five minutes before rinsing and adding a conditioner of your choice, according to the brand.  

Nexxus Color Assure Sulfate-Free Shampoo

If you are avoiding sulfates because you have color-treated hair, consider this shampoo from Nexxus. It is made with the brand’s proprietary ProteinFusion blend containing quinoa and elastin protein to strengthen hair and is sulfate and silicone-free. The brand recommends using it with the coinciding sulfate-free conditioner. This shampoo has a 4.6-star average rating from over 2,380 reviews on Amazon. 

L’Oreal Paris EverStrong Thickening Sulfate Free Shampoo

I always have a bottle of this in my shower. I have fine hair that can get dry, especially in the winter. This shampoo is sulfate-free and makes my hair feel thicker when I use it regularly. According to the brand, the formula is safe for color-treated hair and is also free of salt and phthalates, two ingredients that can also cause dryness. L’Oreal makes a sulfate-free conditioner to go along with this shampoo. 

Vanicream Free and Clear Shampoo

On our list of best shampoos, this is free of sulfates and parabens, which can irritate the scalp and dry out hair. It’s also fragrance-free and works for all hair textures, according to the brand. It has a 4.5-star average rating from more than 11,000 reviews on Amazon.

Design Essentials Moisturizing and Detangling Shampoo

This sulfate-free shampoo is specially formulated for wavy, curly and kinky hair. It is gentle enough to be used on chemically treated and colored hair, as well as on extensions and wigs. This Design Essentials shampoo has an almond scent and has a 4.6-star average rating from nearly 2,990 reviews on Amazon.

Meet our experts

At NBC Select, we work with experts with specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

Why trust NBC Select?

Bethany Heitman is a contributor at NBC Select and a journalist who regularly covers beauty, home and lifestyle. For this story, she interviewed two board-certified dermatologists about sulfates in hair care. 

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