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The Big Sulphate Scam: Why Are So Many Of Us Still Washing Our Hair Wrong?

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Google ‘Sulphate Shampoo’ and the first 20 plus results are variations on a single theme. If it’s not why you need to check your shampoo for sulphate’s it’s why you should care about sulphates in your shampoo. These articles date back to 2014, 2012, 2008 – you get the picture – we’ve known that this nasty chemical-rich formula is bad for our hair for years, over a decade even, but that begs the question: why are we still being sold the sulphate-myth.

To begin with, what are sulphates? Look at the label of any cheap (sorry to be so crass, but it’s true) shampoo and likely you’ll see the words sodium lauryl sulphate, ammonium lauryl sulphate or sodium laureth sulphate, sometimes abbreviated to ‘ALS’ or ‘SS’. ‘sulphates act as a surfactant, a substance that reduces the surface tension of water, helping your shampoo loosen the grease and sebum from your hair and scalp’ adds Dr Michael Barnish, Aesthetic Doctor at The Dr Jonquille Chantrey Clinic. Though considered safe for human use, this cleansing agent is a harsh detergent that strips oils – including the good natural kind – from your hair, it can fade colour, cause dryness, irritate the scalp, a possible cause of organ toxicity, exacerbate acne and damage our ecosystem. Not ideal.

So why do we use them? Put simply, we like the sudsy, foam that this ingredient creates. Plus, ‘they are very effective in removing residue from the surface of the hair and scalp (e.g. dirt and debris from the environment, the residue of styling products, natural oils and sweat etc.)’, Steve Shiel, Director of Scientific for L’Oréal Professionnel, tells Grazia.

There are alternatives out there, which Shiel points out ‘generally provide a different sensorial experience – the foam tends to be lighter and airier’. When looking for a natural, plant-derived substitute look for the following ingredients advises Shiel: Coco Betaines, Coco Glucoside, Decyl Glucoside and Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate.

‘There has been a huge shift in the market following the increased awareness of the negative side effects of sulphates’, said Dr Barnish. More mainstream (read: affordable) brands are creating sulphate-free hair cleansers, but the marketing for many is dovetailing into a problematic area, one that stamps ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ all over the bottle. A market report by the Soil Association published last year showed that 76 per cent of consumers felt misled by labelling. A lack of legislation has meant a lack of robust measures in place for deigning a product ‘organic’ or ‘green’. Brands can get away with labelling something organic even if virtually no ingredients comply with this term. The same can be said for sulphate – if a brand uses an alternative ingredient, it’s still possible other nasties are hiding inside the formula. Not to sound preachy, but we really should be googling the composition of our beauty products as we purchase.

Most people can get by with the muted malevolence of sulphate – especially the ammonium compound, which is a lesser strength than its sodium cousin – but if you have frizzy, curly, delicate or coloured hair, sensitive skin or eczema it’s best to back away.

Shop: 8 Sulphate-Free Shampoos