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Sulfates: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Brenda Stearns - Monday, November 03, 2014

What is a sulfate? Why are they used in so many every day products?

Sulfates are cleansing agents, or surfactants, which produce lather in the products we use.Surfactants break up surface tension, the bonds between molecules in the outer layer of a compound, allowing two separate entities (Shampoo and the oil/dirt in hair) to interact more effectively. Without the loosening of surface bonds, shampoo would not effectively remove dirt, oil and styling products applied to the hair. Sulfates have been used in the manufacturing of personal care products for many years because of their safety, efficiency and flexibility of use.

So why the controversy? Even the proper spelling is not agreed upon.

Whether it is spelled Sulphate (as in British English) or Sulfate (as we know it), it is an ingredient in many personal care products we use on a daily basis. Sulfates or sulfate derivatives encompass a wide range of very different chemical properties. Salts of sulfuric acids are found in toothpastes, mouthwashes, mascaras, lotions, sunscreens, make-up foundation, hair color/bleaching agents, shampoos, liquid hand soaps, body washes, laundry detergents and yes - even carpet cleaners and engine de-greasers.

Here is a list of the most common cosmetic sulfates:

  • Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
  • Ammonium laureth sulfate (ALS)
  • TEA laryeth sulfate (TLS)
  • Sodium myreth sulphate (SMS)
  • Sodium coco-sulfate (SCS)

There is some belief that sulfates are toxic as well as irritants. Sorting through the evidence is even more complicated when research is often exaggerated, misquoted and recirculated around the Internet as if it were fact. There is a lack of long-term studies on all of the chemicals in these products which makes it difficult to determine the long-term effects.

One concern of SLES/SLS is with the manufacturing process ethoxylation. Ethoxylation is a commonly used chemical process to provide mildness to harsh ingredients, and requires the use of petrochemical Ethylene Oxide, which generates 1.4-Dioxane as a by-product. While this may not appear in the finished product, studies have indicated some suspicions of contamination. SLS is not listed by any authoritative bodies as a carcinogen. Also, SLS has been thoroughly reviewed for its safety by a number of government agencies including the International Agency for the Research of Cancer (IARC), U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP), California's Proposition 65 list of carcinogens, U.S. EPA, the European Union, OSHA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA approves of adding sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and ammonium lauryl sulfate on its list of multipurpose food additives.

As with any product, ingredient sensitivity is expected by some users. Detergents are common causes of skin and eye irritations. High levels of SLS ingestion, either orally or through the skin, is not ordinarily experienced in normal cosmetics use as our usage of these cleansing agents  are generally brief and commonly mixed with water, which dilutes them even further. Most shampoos are made up of a 10-15% SLS or SLES solution. Other ingredients in shampoos also affect that percentage. It is known that most sulfates could be potentially toxic if one swallowed around 16 pounds of these chemicals or were exposed to a mixture with a high percentage of concentration. Some purists feel that it is the gradual, cumulative effects of long-term, repeated exposures that are a real concern.

Consumers and professionals have many options available with non-sulfate technology and products now on the market. As professionals who recommend products to a wide variety of different clients, it is important for us to be knowledgeable about what we have available to work with. For example, clients with baby fine hair are not likely going to have the same fluffy hair they desire with a sulfate-free shampoo. Sulfate-free products may also help with extending the life of hair color treatments. Natural curly and coarse hair gains new spring and vitality without daily exposure to sulfates. Below are points to consider when choosing products and what to recommend to clients:
  • Read labels and be aware of what ingredients are in the products.
    • Become familiar with product ingredients, particularly which ones contain sulfates and what type of sulfates they are, to determine which products are best suited for clients.
  • Determine what your desired result is.
    • Choosing the correct product to achieve the best result for a specific service is important for a stylist. Take into consideration hair type and if the hair is virgin or chemically processed. The final outcome can vary as to whether you use a product containing sulfates or a sulfate-free alternative. Also, inquire about your client’s at-home hair regime.
  • Following manufacturer's directions.
    • To achieve the best results of your product, read the directions! This is very important. Directions are created according performance tests and product safety requirements set forth by the manufacturer. Minimize any risk by using the product correctly.
  • Come to your own conclusion
    • Gaining an understanding about products helps stylists learn which hair types and conditions will benefit from exposure to sulfates and which will not. As products evolve, stylists will benefit from taking a proactive approach to ingredient education to learn what products become available to them.
Ovation has created some of the very best sulfate-free products that are specifically formulated for any hair type. The Legacy Color Therapy shampoo and chelating Clarifying shampoo contain sodium laureth sulfate for a mild, yet thorough cleanse if there is a preference for sulfates. Hair types that are more baby-fine may benefit more from these options. Although our partner stylists are not required to hold degrees in chemistry, we understand stylists work with a variety of chemicals regularly. At Ovation, we believe it is our responsibility to know how our ingredients affect our clients as well as the environment. Ovation remains on the forefront of developing new, safe, naturally-derived hair care products. We will continue to use the newest technologies to develop high quality nourishing and rejuvenating products with demonstrated effectiveness and to support the needs of the professional hairdresser.


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