Life was lot easier when I didn’t have to worry about my beauty products being x-, y-, or z-“free.” These days, I spend time reading product labels to ensure that my serums, body washes, and makeup aren’t packed with anything that will irritate my skin—and my haircare is no exception. I’ll admit that I’m still not totally clear as to why I must stay away from specific ingredients, particularly the hotly contested “sulfates” in shampoos. So I turned to Alicia Bailey, hair texture specialist and global education manager at Design Essentials, for answers.
“Sulfate-free shampoo is formulated with cleansers that do not contain sulfates, which are essentially detergents that help to create suds and lather to cleanse the hair and scalp,” Bailey explains. While many shampoos contain sulfates as a lathering agent, unfortunately, they often come with the side effect of stripping the hair shaft of all that’s good—be it dye, oils, and/or natural protectants. Those that are formulated without sulfate may not offer as many suds, but they’ll also leave hair perfectly clean and much less damaged over time, especially if your hair is color-treated or curly. And some still manage to add suds all the same. Check out all of our favorites, ahead.
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Best for Repair
No.4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo
Best for Thick Hair
Almond & Avocado Moisturizing & Detangling Shampoo
Best for Strengthening
Love Beauty and Planet
Sulfate-Free Deep Cleanse
Best for Scalp
Tea Tree Triple Treat Invigorating Shampoo
Best Lightweight Formula
Nurture Hydrating Shampoo
Best for Dandruff
Best for All Textures
True Textures Moisture Replenish Shampoo
Best for Natural Hair
Smoothing Sulfate Free Shampoo
Best for Moisture
Nutriplenish™ Deep Moisture Shampoo
Best for Hydration
Intensive Hydration Shampoo
Best for Volume
Extra Volume Shampoo
Best Drugstore Buy
EverPure Sulfate Free Moisture Shampoo
Best Tech-Infused Option
Best Soothing Formula
Organic Nourishing Shampoo
Best Cream Formula
No Suds Cleansing Cream
Best Affordable Option
Fructis Triple Nutrition Curl Nourish Shampoo
Best Gentle Shampoo
Be Gentle, Be Kind Aloe + Oat Milk Ultra Soothing Fragrance-Free Hypoallergenic Shampoo
What is a sulfate-free shampoo?
“Sulfate-free shampoos are formulated without the use of sulfate-based cleansers. Instead, sulfate-free cleansers are designed to still lather and clean away dirt, oil, and unwanted buildup,” says Mason.
Is sulfate-free shampoo good for your hair?
Sulfate-free shampoos are great for hair because they remove the bad without robbing your strands of their good stuff. “Sulfate-free is the winner when it comes to what’s the best for your hair; it delivers a more fresh and gentle cleansing than the sulfate-containing formulations. [In shampoos] the main types of sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate (or SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), which can strip natural oils from the scalp and hair and make hair dry and brittle. If your scalp is sensitive, sulfates can cause irritation like redness, dryness, and itching,” Mason explains.
Why are sulfate-free shampoos better?
While sulfate-free cleansers are best for keeping your hair’s natural oils and nutrients intact, sulfates are not completely bad.
“I would not necessarily say that they are ‘better,’ because there are instances when shampoos that are not sulfate-free are needed. Clarifying shampoos, medicated shampoos, and neutralizing shampoos are not sulfate-free but are necessary,” Bailey says. “Sulfate-free shampoos provide moisture, shine, and conditioning to all hair types. They provide gentle cleansing and do not strip the hair of its natural oils, and they are great to help maintain color-treated hair and provide longevity as they will not strip the color from the hair.” If a sulfate-based cleanser is used, Bailey says she follows up with a sulfate-free option to return moisture to the hair. “If I must use a shampoo that is not sulfate-free in those instances, I always follow with a sulfate-free shampoo to impart moisture into the hair before following with my favorite conditioner,” she adds.
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