Why are Sulfates bad for the hair?


By now, you’ve heard a lot of talk about sulfates- you’ve probably seen them listed as a key ingredient in most hair products, or you’ve read multiple posts telling you that “sulfates=bad,” or your friends may have even recommended sulfate-free shampoos to you! 

But that doesn’t answer any of your questions! What are sulfates? Why is sodium sulfate bad for your hair?  Can SLS actually be good for hair? What on earth even are SLS and SLES? 

Don’t worry, we’re here to answer all of your questions! From the side effects of sulfates on your hair, to switching to sulfate-free products- we’ve got your back! Read on to know more!

What are Sulfates? 

Sulfates are types of chemicals called surfactants, and are used as chemical foaming agents in most hygiene products such as soaps, toothpastes and shampoos. In fact, sulfates have actually been used in hygiene products since the 1950s, and are the most commonly used detergents in the industry. 

To put it simply, sulfates are detergents that remove dirt and oil from our hair and are also responsible for the foam that is produced during shampooing (it may also be interesting to note that sulfates are also one of the key ingredients in laundry and dish detergents). 

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium Laureth sulfate (SLES) are the most common sulfates found in commercial shampoos. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a powerful surfactant that is very effective at cleaning surfaces and foaming, while sodium Laureth sulfate is a milder version of the surfactant that is as effective as a cleanser, but is less irritating than the former. Thus, most shampoos use both these sulfates in their formula to combine effective cleaning with lowered irritation. However, the question remains: Does sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium Laureth sulfate damage hair? 

The answer is yes! While sulfates are effective at cleaning the hair, popular opinion around them has now drastically changed. These chemicals not only clean the dirt and oil from the hair, but also strip it of its natural oils, leaving the hair and scalp feeling dry and damaged. Read on to find more about the effects of sulfates on the hair and scalp!

Effects of Sulfates on Hair and Scalp


One of the primary side effects of sulfates on hair is that of dryness. As we have mentioned, sulfates strip your hair of its natural oils, causing dry hair and irritation in the scalp. This dryness can then snowball into a variety of other issues, including split-ends, brittle and damaged hair. 

What’s more, sulfates have been directly linked to damage to hair protein- a study showed that hair immersed in a sulfate solution lost two times as much protein as hair immersed in water. This is especially alarming because hair is made up of protein, and prolonged exposure to sulfates can cause damage to this protein, weakening the hair and causing split ends.

Hair Loss

The most concerning part of sulfate shampoos is the residue they leave behind even after they’ve been washed off. This residue can clog your hair follicles, damaging your hair. In fact, the dryness and damage that are caused by these sulfates are not the only things that cause hair loss-  when open follicles are exposed to SLS residue for prolonged periods of time, they can be adversely affected by its harmful properties, leaving them incapable of growing hair again.

Vicious Cycle 

When sulfates strip your hair of natural oils, the scalp starts over-compensating for the lost oil by producing excess amounts of it, which is what causes greasy hair. To get rid of this greasiness, we are forced to use chemical shampoos again, starting the cycle all over again. And it’s not just the oil also builds up on the scalp over time, making it greasy and prone to acne.

Sulphate Shampoo  Removes all oil from the scalp


Oily scalp  Scalp goes into overdrive

This vicious cycle is very hard to break- in fact, when you first make the switch to sulfate-free shampoos the scalp continues to produce excess oil because it is so used to overcompensating for the lost oil. This is why you might experience greasy hair for a while even after ditching the sulfates.

Switching to Sulfate-Free Products

We understand that switching to sulfate-free/natural products can be a daunting task, especially since most of us have been using sulfate shampoos all our lives. However, sulfate-free hair products can be very beneficial for your hair- since they are mild and gentle, they do not strip your scalp of any natural oils, keeping your hair soft and healthy without any damage. 

Deciding what shampoo to switch to can also be a confusing prospect. There are a variety of sulfate-free shampoos available in the market; look at the labels carefully before buying your shampoo! Alternatively, you can also switch to natural cleansers that are made up entirely of pure and natural ingredients with no chemicals at all.

Initially, you may feel discomfort as your scalp is likely to feel oilier, and your hair might feel dry and brittle- this is all part of the process! In this detox phase, the scalp tries to adjust to the new hair products, and it takes a while for it to regulate its oil production. This phase can last anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks, but once your hair has found its natural balance, your hair will be healthier than ever!

Read our blog here for more information about making the switch.

Zemé’s Recommendation: Our Natural Hair Cleanser

At Zemé Fresh, we believe in 100 percent natural solutions to your hair problems, which is why we’ve developed the Zemé No Lather Hair Cleanser for your hair. Using natural cleaning herbs such as reetha, shikakai, methi, hibiscus etc, our cleanser gently and effectively cleans your hair without producing any lather. Completely sulfate and chemical free, our cleaner has absolutely no artificial ingredients added to it, which is why it needs to be refrigerated, just like fresh food! What’s more, each Zemé cleanser is custom-made to suit the hair needs of every customer, using traditional Indian wisdom. With regular use, the cleanser promises to give you long lasting hair health and the beautiful, voluminous hair you’re always dreamt of!


To make a long story short, sulphates are, indeed, very harmful for your hair, which is why it is in the best interest of your hair health to switch to sulfate-free shampoos or natural cleansers. You can also check out our blog here to read about ways to naturally wash your hair without shampoo.

We hope that this article was of some help to you! Good luck on your journey to healthy hair.

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Most haircare problems can be solved by following a haircare regime that is free from synthetic chemicals.