The facts and fables
What is a sulfate?
Sulfates are surfactants that have a foaming effect in products such as shampoo to remove dirt, oil and residues from, for example, styling products from the hair during washing. Sulfates can remove these substances because they act as an emulsifier between water and oil. An emulsifier is a substance that allows water and oil to mix, removing the oil (and other grease and dirt) from your hair during washing. So a sulfate is actually an ingredient that provides the functionality of a shampoo; it cleans your hair. And that, of course, is why we use a shampoo in the first place; to clean our hair. But why then is there so much negativity towards sulfates?
What is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?
The negativity towards sulfates is mainly based on the substance Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, also known as SLS. This is a powerful sulfate, which is actually just a little too good at its job. SLS cleans more than we want and therefore affects your skin barrier. This substance enters your blood via your scalp and therefore also in your brain. The skin barrier is the outer layer of your skin and protects us from environmental influences and dehydration (1). It is a layer that can prevent substances from entering your body, or allow ingredients to pass through, depending on the size and permeability of the ingredient.
Irritations from SLS
Since the skin is your largest organ and therefore forms an important defense mechanism, we naturally want to keep it in optimal condition. Unfortunately, SLS can affect this barrier and it is a logical consequence that if more substances can pass through that barrier, your skin becomes irritated and can dry out (2). SLS is so irritating to the skin that it is even used in studies to induce irritation to test the soothing effect of other ingredients or new medications (3). However, the effects described above depend on the amount and time that SLS is on your skin. With products that you rinse off immediately, this effect is less than if it is on your skin or in your hair all day. There is no evidence (yet) that SLS is toxic or carcinogenic.
sulfate in your shampoo
Although SLS is a sulfate that you want to avoid, there are also sulfates that are less powerful but clean your hair well by removing the oils, fat and residual products from your hair. After all, this is why we use a shampoo. An example of this is Sodium Coco Sulphate. This sulfate is extracted from coconut oil and can even be used in baby products in Denmark (and Denmark has really strict laws and regulations for that)! So you can assume that this is a safe sulfate to use in shampoo. The tricky thing about this is that the way it is processed and produced plays an important role in the quality and safety of an ingredient. Consider, for example, the environment, how the fabrics are processed and what the final composition of the product is in your bathroom. In this case certificates say a lot!
What can you do?
So there are different types of sulfates, the effects of which on your skin depend on the aggressiveness, the amount and time they are on your skin. I see sulfates as an important part of shampoo to make it functional. There are different sulfates, where you can try to avoid SLS and choose a shampoo that contains, for example, Sodium Coco Sulfate or Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate. If you do choose a shampoo without sulphate, this shampoo often contains another ingredient that ensures that the shampoo lathers or cleans your hair; in that case, take a good look at what has been added.
Yentl Murk Jansen
Focused on ingredients in (natural) cosmetics and the effects on your health
After studying Health Sciences and a Masters in Management, Policy Analysis and Entrepreneurship in Health and Life Sciences, I started working for the natural cosmetics companies NATULIQUE and LYKKEGAARD. Hip, high-quality, from Denmark, Scandinavian look and focused on human health. With the aim of making the cosmetics and hairdressing industry more transparent, aware and healthy and to inspire everyone who wants to live a healthier and happier life by offering natural, luxurious cosmetics. I mainly focus on ingredients and the effect on the body, with the motivation to inform people about the importance of clean cosmetics. What you put on skin can also end up in your body and have an effect on your health and BrainBalance.
I myself started using natural hair products before I worked for these companies. Not because of the ingredients or because of my health, but because it simply gave me much nicer and nicer hair. Now that I also know what ingredients are in cosmetics and what natural ingredients can offer us, I am convinced. I mean, using good and healthy products without trying too hard and also getting better hair and skin - perfect.
My goal? Showing people the importance of high-quality cosmetics with fewer bad substances in them, creating more transparency, sharing tips and, above all, making it easier to make the right choice. During my studies, the focus was often on prevention: prevention is better than cure. That is exactly what I want to focus on
DO IT FOR YOUR FUTURE SELF.
Rawlings AV, Harding CR. Moisturization and skin barrier function. Dermatologic therapy. 2004 Feb;17:43-8.
Heetfeld AB, Schill T, Schröder SS, Forkel S, Mahler V, Pfützner W, Schön MP, Geier J, Buhl T. Challenging a paradigm: skin sensitivity to sodium lauryl sulfate is independent of atopic diathesis. British Journal of Dermatology. 2020 Jul;183(1):139-45.
Wilhelm KP, Surber C, Maibach HI. Effect of sodium lauryl sulfate—induced skin irritation on in vivo percutaneous penetration of four drugs. Journal of investigative dermatology. 1991 Nov 1;97(5):927-32.