In this day and age, more and more products are claiming to be sulfate free. It’s almost expected by consumers that brands launch sulfate free cleansers or shampoos or dishwashers or laundry detergent. While moving away from sulfates isn’t a bad thing, the perception of sulfate-based products has certainly taken a hit. It carries a strong negative connotation of unsafe and poor quality. Have you ever looked at a product’s ingredients list, saw that it contained sulfate and decided to put it back on the shelf or removed from cart without even realising that you had done it?
Are sulfates really that bad? Are they harmful to the body? Do they cause cancer?! Before we get into the nitty gritty, let's learn exactly what sulfates are, how they work and whether we should avoid them.
What is sulfate and how does it work?
Sulfate is a type of surfactant. You can also refer to them as a cleaning agent or detergent. Surfactants are compounds that reduce the surface tension between two different mediums, for example - oil and water or dirt and water or even air, oil, and water. By dropping the surface tension you’re allowing these different mediums to mix with each other where they wouldn’t have otherwise. Sulfates are extremely effective cleansing agents and is what gives cleaning products that luscious, super foamy lather.
The most common sulfate compounds are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES).
Are sulphates bad for you?
What we really need to define here is the word bad. Is an ingredient bad for you if it reacts to your skin or has low efficacy or that it has a poor safety profile? It could be all three or one over the other.
For us, an overall bad ingredient is one that has a poor safety profile or alarming toxicology studies that have proven to be harmful to the skin in a cosmetic setting (the setting here is very important but we’ll get to that). An ingredient that may react on a person’s skin may not have the same effect on another. Same with efficacy, an ingredient can do wonders for one person but maybe not for another.
Now, are sulfates bad for you? If we’re talking in terms of safety profile in cosmetic use, then no. Yes, you saw that correctly – SULFATES ARE NOT HARMFUL WHEN USED IN A COSMETIC PRODUCT. We can already hear some of you saying, “but there’s studies to show that sulfates can cause cancer, cause severe eye damage and blindness!”.
Okay, this is where context and setting become really, LIKE REALLY, important. A study was published in the journal Lens and Eye Toxicity Research that showed high concentration of SLS exposure causes damage to the eyes. Please take note of HIGH CONCENTRATION. Any ingredient at high concentrations can also cause harm. Try opening your eyes in tap water, or in the pool or in the ocean? It stings or you get red eyes, yes? In cosmetics, sulfate concentrations are no where near the concentrations used in these very old studies. There is also no evidence that cosmetic products containing sulfates cause eye damage.
The other major misinterpretation is that sulfates cause cancer. To date, there seems to be no scientific evidence to support that sulfates cause cancer. Sulfate is also not listed as a carcinogen by the European Union or U.S National Toxicology Program etc.
Now with all the misinterpretation out of the way...
Would we still recommend sulfates? – Yes and no.
Yes – it’s effective and affordable.
No - if you have sensitive or dry skin, we would recommend you use sulfate-free products. Because sulfates are so good at what they do, they have the potential to overstrip the natural oils of the skin. For someone who already lacks natural oils (dry skin), using sulfates could be causing even further dehydration. Sulfates can also cause cutaneous irritation if they stay on the skin for long enough.
As always, work with what is best for your skin type! If you’re not reacting to sulfate-based products and you find them to be quite effective, then GREAT! Continue to use them without feeling fearful or guilty. If you find your skin become dry or slightly irritated, then it’s best to try out sulfate-free based products.