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Are Sulfates in Shampoo Really That Bad for Your Hair?


The debate surrounding the use of sulfates in beauty products isn’t new. As a cleansing ingredient, it’s been found in soaps and shampoos for decades. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), sulfates are a “popular type of detergent that produces a lathering effect in personal care products and removes dirt and debris from hair by creating a rich lather.”

So why is there so much talk about sulfates in shampoo being bad? Fans of the Netflix series Queer Eye probably remember hearing hair expert Jonathan Van Ness claim that sodium lauryl sulfate, the first ingredient in several shampoos, also happens to be what is used to clean car engines. He wasn’t exaggerating, although it’s obviously used to a lesser degree in the hair product than for automobiles. That said, the AAD confirms that it might be a good idea to avoid using shampoo with sulfates: “The trade-off is that sulfates can be harsh on the hair by removing natural oils and allowing more damage to hair.” This is especially true for anyone with fine, color-treated, or otherwise sensitive hair and scalp situations. If you have a problem with thinning hair, it could be worth taking a look at the ingredients in your shampoo for sulfates. It might not be the direct cause of your shedding locks, but it could be making matters worse. 

There are other ingredients you should be on the lookout for and potentially avoid, including sodium chloride (literally just salt, which can dry your strands and scalp out) and even formaldehyde. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics claims the abrasive chemical has been found in everything from nail polish to soap for infants. Formaldehyde can hide under different names, so keep an eye out for the following ingredients as well: quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol). 

Now, what should you be looking for to help plump up hair after damage has been done? The AAD recommends shampoos with hydrolyzed keratin or dimethicone, which coat the hair shaft to appear thicker. For actual growth, though, you might try shampoo with minoxidil, the only topical medication currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for both promoting hair growth and slowing down loss. Before rushing out to purchase any product to lather up with, however, you should always check with your dermatologist or other medical professional. It’s also smart to do a small test patch before diving in for a full shampoo. 

Once you get the all clear, you should check out our list of the best shampoos for thinning hair!

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