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What Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo and Why Should You Use It?

A hand holding lathered shampoo

One question hair stylists love to ask every time you get your hair cut or colored is this: “Are you using a sulfate-free shampoo?” If you’ve ever mumbled yes while also wondering how much they’ll charge you for that gleaming bottle of shampoo on their shelves, you’ve probably also wondered what sulfate-free shampoo actually is.

From why you should use a sulfate-free shampoo to what it means to have sulfate in shampoo to the best sulfate-free shampoos, we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know about sulfate-free shampoo, conditioner, and more.

What Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

According to dermatologist Dr. Erum N. Ilyas, MD, MBE, FAAD, CEO and founder of AmberNoon, sulfate-free shampoos are shampoos that are purported to be less “harsh” for the hair because there’s no sulfate exercise detergent effects.

What Is Sulfate in Shampoo?

Sulfates in shampoos are in the surfactants category of ingredients, Dr. Ilyas explains. “Surfactants are the ‘workhorse’ of a shampoo. They are designed to specifically cleanse the hair and scalp via degreasing,” she says. “Surfactants are particles where one end ‘likes’ oil and one end ‘likes’ water.”

The end that “likes” oil, Dr. Ilyas explains, attaches to the oil on the hair like a magnet. “This leaves the end that ‘likes’ water exposed. As luck would have it, you use shampoo in the shower where there’s a steady stream of water. The exposed end of the surfactant that’s looking for water finds it readily and attaches like a magnet to the water. This pulls the oil off the hair and rinses it away with the water.”

What Does Sulfate Do to Your Hair?

If you’ve been using shampoo with sulfates for years, try not to worry too much—contrary to popular belief, sulfates actually aren’t that bad for your hair. “Everyone loves to hate sulfates,” Dr. Ilyas says. “The truth is that sulfates are strong, cheap, and clean your hair, so they’re easy to add to products. It’s true that they are likely too strong for daily shampoo use because they can leave the hair feeling excessively stripped of natural oils.”

Which Shampoos Contain Sulfates?

Unless a shampoo says “sulfate-free” on it, it probably contains sulfates. “Most adult shampoos, unless otherwise indicated, often have sulfates,” Dr. Ilyas says. “Sulfates tend to be a common, effective surfactant found in shampoos, soaps, and cleansers.”

Who Should Use Shampoo Without Sulfates?

Sulfate-free shampoos are ideal for those that deal with excess dryness of their hair or skin from shampoos, Dr. Ilyas says. “For example, if you find that shampoos strip the excess oil from your hair that leaves it dry and brittle, the use of a sulfate-free shampoo may help reduce the degreasing effect of shampoos. Those with excess dryness of their skin or irritation may also benefit.”

What Is the Difference Between Sulfate-Free Shampoo and Regular Shampoo?

​​Regular shampoo and sulfate-free shampoo both achieve degreasing and cleansing of the hair and scalp, Dr. Ilyas explains. “The difference would be the ingredient used to achieve this result. If sulfates are not in the shampoo, then an alternative surfactant will be present for the shampoo to perform its cleansing and degreasing role.”

Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo Good for Your Hair?

Dr. Ilyas says there’s no clear evidence to back up the idea that sulfate-free shampoo is better for your hair than shampoo without sulfates. That being said, sulfate-free shampoo can help reduce the degreasing effect of shampoos, so if you deal with excess dryness or greasiness, this may be a good option for you.

How to Apply Sulfate-free Shampoo

Sulfate-free shampoos should be applied in the exact same way regular shampoos are. Start by getting your hair wet, dispense a nickel-sized amount of shampoo into your hand, lather it up in your hair, and rinse it out.

Benefits of Using Sulfate-Free Shampoo

The main benefit of sulfate-free shampoo is that if you’re prone to dryness or irritation, it may be beneficial for your hair.

Cons of Using Sulfate-Free Shampoo

Cons of using sulfate-free shampoo include the fact that it tends to be more expensive than regular shampoo, and that there are no guarantees that it will work better on your hair than shampoos containing sulfates.

Are Sulfate-Free Products More Expensive Than Regular Products?

Yes, sulfate-free shampoos do tend to be more expensive than regular products.

What Is the Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

Rodan + Fields’ Smooth+ Shampoo is a sulfate-free, color-protecting shampoo that cleanses while it works to keep your scalp healthy. The shampoo gets to the root of any damage, dryness, or frizziness as it nourishes and balances the scalp to support healthy hair long-term.

More About the R+F Sulfate-Free Shampoo Line

All of Rodan + Fields’ shampoos and conditioners are sulfate-free. Rodan and Fields hair products work to get to the root of hair concerns and cleanse your hair of dirt and debris and leave it smooth, shiny, and healthy.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sulfate-Free Shampoo

Why does sulfate-free shampoo leave my hair greasy?

Because ingredients in sulfate-free shampoos tend to be milder than other shampoos, they may not feel quite as cleansing as other shampoos and could leave your hair feeling greasy.

Does sulfate-free shampoo cause hair loss?

No, sulfate-free shampoos do not cause hair loss. Actually, because the ingredients are milder, they may actually better preserve your hair.

Does sulfate-free shampoo lather?

Yes, sulfate-free shampoo does lather—but it may not lather as much as other shampoos, simply because the ingredients are milder.

Can I wash my hair every day with sulfate-free products?

Yes, you can wash your hair every day with sulfate-free products.

Is it worth spending more on sulfate-free shampoo?

If you struggle with dryness or irritation, yes, sulfate-free shampoo may be worth it for you. In any case, talk to your doctor or a dermatologist—they can point you in the direction of the right shampoo for you.