If you’ve even a passing interest in shampoos you’d be aware that the use of sulfates in shampoos is a hugely controversial topic.
Some of the materials you’ll read are contradictory and some are misinformed. There’s a lot of misleading info. out there. The problem is that sulfates are found in most mainstream shampoos.
So the purpose of this article is to explore the basic science of sulfates, the potential risks and recommend our favorite sulfate free dandruff shampoos.
And try to bust a few popular myths on the way…
In this article:
- What are sulfates?
- Are all sulfates the same?
- What are the risks of using a shampoo containing sulfates?
- Some of the more popular sulfate myths…
- Should I use sulfate free shampoos?
- What are the best sulfate free dandruff shampoos?
What are sulfates?
Sulfates are used in shampoo to help remove sebum and dirt from your hair through surfactant action (they also create the foam!). These surface-active agents (surf-act-ants) wrap themselves around dirt particles, helping to wash them away. Understanding the molecular structure of sulfates is a good place to start in understanding this property.
All sulfate surfactants work in essentially the same way: they are long molecular chains that don’t like water (hydrophobic), with a charged ‘sulfate’ end that loves water (hydrophilic). The long chains wrap around dirt, meaning that the water-loving sulfate end faces outwards. This makes the dirt water soluble, and so it washes away down your drain .
Are all sulfates the same?
There are a number of sulfate surfactants commonly used in shampoos, but four of the most popular are:
* Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
* Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
* Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS)
* Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES)
Each of these removes dirt through the process described above, but they have different relative strengths. One way to measure the strength of a surfactant is the ‘Zein Test’ . It shows that SLS and ALS are stronger surfactants than SLES and ALES – but also more irritating to the skin. You’re more likely to suffer from contact dermatitis using SLS/ALS than SLES/ALES but your hair will not be as “clean”..
What are the potential risks?
The potential risks of sulfates can be a controversial topic because, for the vast majority of people, they are effectively harmless. There is no evidence that the use of sulfates in shampoos causes any systemic adverse effects in the short term or through accumulation, such as cancer, poor ocular development, cataract, or hair loss . There is published evidence that if you repeatedly expose lab animals to surfactants, without rinsing them away, that long term damage is possible – but these studies clearly aren’t consistent with how shampoos are used.
This isn’t to say sulfates are harmless. They are known to cause skin irritation by damaging membrane proteins, which can be particularly harmful to those with dermatological conditions, such as psoriasis, seb derm, eczema or a dry scalp [5, 6]. Individuals with sensitive skin may experience stinging, burning, or redness with sulfates, although several studies have shown that it’s difficult to predict who will be affected .
Regulatory bodies in the US and EU regard sulfates in shampoos as safe, because of their low concentration and short exposure time [8, 9]. One slight exception is the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which requires pharmaceutical companies to add a warning to any medical product containing SLS due to the potential for irritation .
1. Sulfate-free shampoos are better for your health
The issue isn’t necessarily with sulfates, it’s with surfactants. There are many non-sulfate surfactants, but they carry the same irritant warnings while being less effective and more expensive. If you have reacted poorly to sulfate surfactants in the past, then you could consider trying the milder SLES or ALES, or an alternative such as coco-glucoside or sodium cocoyl-glycinate.
2. Sulfates are safe because they are made from coconut oil
Sulfates can be made from coconut oil, but the process isn’t a natural one. The Ziegler Process converts fatty acids to alcohols, with a methyl aluminoxane catalyst. These are then further processed into SLS (…and then into SLES using sulfur trioxide and chlorosulfuric acid) . Not quite the same as extra virgin coconut oil!
3. ‘Natural’ shampoo is better for your hair
The term ‘natural’ isn’t regulated in the EU or the US, and so your shampoo could still contain synthetic surfactants. If you want to ensure that what you’re using is the most appropriate for your hair, then you’ll need to become familiar with reading the label or reviews.
Should I use sulfate free shampoos?
Sulfates surfactants used in shampoos help to remove dirt and sebum, in order to clean your hair – the primary purpose of a shampoo. There is no evidence that they cause any systemic harm, but can be an irritant to those with sensitive skin or dermatological conditions. If you’ve reacted poorly to shampoo in the past, then it’s possible that a sulfate surfactant such as SLS was to blame.
It’s widely accepted that SLES and ALES are milder alternatives to SLS and ALS, and non-sulfate surfactants like sodium cocoyl glycinate exist (although they can still cause irritation). These milder alternatives can be found in mainstream products, but unfortunately, they aren’t yet separated neatly on shopping shelves. So you’ll need to check the ingredients – or let us do it for you!
The 25 Best Sulfate Free Dandruff Shampoos
After reading this and you have made the decision to avoid sulfates we have some good news for you – there are a number of sulfate/sls free shampoos about on the market now.
Here are some of our favorites.
Pharmaceutical Specialties formed in 1974 to “start a company to make better products than were commercially available for people with sensitive skin”. And boy, have they achieved it with this Free and Clear shampoo.
What is perhaps surprising on a website dedicated to dandruff treatments is that this isn’t a dandruff shampoo at all.
It’s rather a "a non-medicated, mild shampoo for sensitive skin and scalp.”
That said, we can’t use a medicated shampoo all the time, and this is my go to shampoo for those “between” washes.
BIOM8 Skin Conditioning Oil is now part of my daily skin care routine. It’s as simple as that. I have lost count of the number of products I’ve reviewed over the years and I can count on one hand the number of products that have impacted me on this level.
If you suffer from dry skin, facial seb derm or rosacea I simply can’t recommend this product highly enough.
It even makes a good beard oil!
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
Maple Holistics Hydrate Shampoo has been superbly formulated to soothe and moisturize the scalp and hair. The ingredients have been carefully selected to decrease the chance that the product will irritate the skin. Using multiple low dose surfactants is a stroke of genius and only the fact the shampoo contains only one potential contact allergen says it all.
This is as close to perfection as you get in the commercial shampoo world.
I simply can't recommend this highly enough.
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
Nurture My Body Everyday Fragrance-Free Shampoo is an excellent gentle option for sufferers of a dry irritated scalp. The absence of any noteworthy irritants or allergens combined with the expert formulation of anti-inflammatory moisturizing ingredients makes an excellent change from the usual harsh surfactants and other toxins that lead to a vicious cycle of irritation and inflammation.
They've managed all of this in a shampoo that foams and washes well.
It's not particularly cheap, but this is simply one of the finest dry scalp shampoos out there.
Calling all sensitive scalp sufferers, if you haven’t yet found an anti-dandruff shampoo your scalp can tolerate, you haven’t yet found Sebclair shampoo. A piroctone olamine, Malassezia yeast quelling formula with extremely mild yet highly effective cleansers, accompanying scalp hydrators, flake fighters and natural anti-inflammatories. No fragrance, no essentials oils, no allergens. Sebclair shampoo really does stand out in our anti-dandruff crowd.
If your babe’s crusty cradle cap’s only getting worse, it’s time to try a leave on treatment – one which doesn’t leave your baby’s scalp looking like a grease ball. Enter Bioderma’s ABDderm Babysquam keratoregulating cream a 14 ingredient formula made from sensitive, hypoallergenic, moisturising, soothing and barrier building ingredients.
Useable 7 days a week with no fragrance or harsh preservatives Bioderma’s ABDderm Babysquam keratoregulating cream respects, repairs and conditions away crusty cradle cap.
Dead Sea Spa MAGIK Mineral Shampoo is a combination shampoo containing both salicylic acid and zinc pyrithione. The thinking behind this shampoo is that the salicylic acid will soften and exfoliate existing build up and the zinc pyrithione will help prevent new build up from forming.
I’m generally a big fan of combination shampoos and this is no exception. The shampoo feels great, has a nice light smell and leaves the hair feeling extremely soft. It only contains one known contact allergen too - cocamidopropyl betaine.
If you suffer from mild seb derm I can’t recommend this highly enough.
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
One of the best and mildest shampoos out there for seb derm sufferers with sensitive skin.
Containing both Piroctone Olamine and Salicylic Acid as well as being SLS free, paraben free, artificial color free this shampoo has an absolutely outstanding choice of active and inactive ingredients.
There are still two or three chemicals in there that some may find irritating. Otherwise this would have been a five out of five performer.
Quite simply the best pure Salicylic Acid shampoo we’ve yet reviewed. The shampoo contains 3% Salicylic Acid combined with a fragrance free, sulfate free and virtually every other nasty ingredient free formulation. It does this and still feels luxurious when washing.
Neutrogena should be exceptionally proud of this top top class shampoo.
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
An impressive dry scalp treatment shampoo with an innovative formulation.
I have to applaud any company that can formulate a shampoo with so few allergens. The fact that it washes so well is marvelous. For those not sensitive to Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Phenoxyethanol or fragrances - this is an excellent shampoo.
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
This dry scalp treatment isn’t a shampoo at all, but rather a leave on moisturizer that you apply to your hair after washing.
The advantage of this approach is that, while shampoos are designed to clean (and all the sensitizing issues that come with that) this treatment is designed to moisturize and nothing else.
You’re free to use the shampoo of your choice and us this treatment in combination.
It’s an excellent approach that I hope other manufacturers take notice of.
Scalp 18 Coal Tar shampoo is a 2% coal tar formulation that has a number of added essential oils to further nourish and soothe the scalp.
These essential oils do contain fragrance but if you're not sensitive to fragrances then this is a superb shampoo.
It is extremely gentle and washes like a high end salon shampoo.
If you’re not sensitive to fragrances then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this shampoo.
Maple Holistics Tea Tree Shampoo is an outstanding Tea Tree shampoo for treating Dry Scalp or Seb Derm. It doesn’t contain any artificial coloring or fragrance, sulfates, parabens, or carcinogens. It contains only three potential contact allergens, with two of the three being tea tree and rosemary essential oils.
The combination of cleansing agents used are gentle, effective and innovative while the shampoo smells ace and washes even better.
If you're looking for a tea tree shampoo, I can't recommend this highly enough.
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
Cleure Volumizing uses only a handful of skin conditioning agents and gentle cleansers to treat a dry scalp.
It contains only two potential irritants that should be considered low to moderate concerns, compared to other much harsher alternatives. This shampoo doesn’t use any sulfates, parabens, artificial fragrances, dyes, alcohol, salicylates, formaldehyde, or SLS, making it a good option for those with sensitive scalps who typically react to less gentle, conventional shampoo and other personal care products.
Unless you have severely sensitive skin and are highly reactive to any potential irritants, we suggest trying this shampoo from Cleure and seeing if it calms your sensitive skin, and helps to clear up any dryness and itchiness on your scalp.
Puracy Citrus Mint Natural Shampoo offers a great natural alternative to the many sulfate laden shampoos on the market today. Whether you are looking for an everyday use shampoo, or one that you can rotate your medicated dandruff shampoo with, we’d recommend trying the Natural Shampoo.
Because there are essential oils in the formula, we recommend caution to anyone who is sensitive to fragrances, or sensitive or allergic to any of the ingredients.
Otherwise, you’re looking at an expertly formulated shampoo that, for once, lives up to the manufacturer’s promises.
Sebclair Non-Steroidal Cream is an anti-fungal, piroctone olamine based treatment partnered with a trophy cabinet of natural anti-inflammatory actives. If you have a mild to moderate case of seb derm, hate steroids and love naturals Sebclair is for you. Best bit – there’s only two known allergens or irritants.
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
Do you have an extremely sensitive scalp in need of anti-dandruff help? Do you suffer from mild to moderate seb derm? Meet your new best friend. Free & Clear’s Medicated Anti-Dandruff Shampoo contains zero allergens, zero irritants, zero sensitizers formula based on 2% zinc pyrithione. An active ingredient able to improve the health of dandruff affected skin while also helping pacify dandruff causing overgrowths of the Malassezia yeast.
I simply can't recommend this shampoo highly enough.
Are you looking for a natural solution to your baby’s crusty cradle cap? Want a formula that works with your skin to help restore a healthy scalp? Then look no further than Bella B’s Bee Gone Cradle Cap Baby Shampoo with oatmeal, tea tree oil, shea butter and more for helping restore what makes your baby's scalp healthy. Free of parabens, animal by-products, harsh cleansers and preservatives, the hypoallergenic formula makes Bella B’s bee gone cradle cap baby shampoo a great solution for the everyday care of your baby's scalp.
Anti-cradle cap shampoos designed to be used from the very first day of your babe’s life are hard to come by. And in the promise of finding one, you want to be 100% sure of its safety. Mustela foam shampoo for newborns is a diamond in the rough, featuring well proven anti-cradle cap/anti-dandruff actives with above and beyond safety testing in a daily use formula.
It is worth bearing in mind that it isn't fragrance-free, and salicylic acid can cause dryness after prolonged usage. But as a treatment to combat established doses of cradle cap - you'll struggle to find a more effective treatment on the market.
Capasal have taken the unique step of combining 1% Coal Tar with 0.5% Salicylic Acid and added coconut oil.
It's perhaps the most original and interesting shampoo formulation we've yet seen
That aside Capasal is an excellent shampoo for those who suffer mild to moderate scalp psoriasis.
Denorex isn’t the gentlest shampoo, but with 3% Salicylic Acid it’s as strong as you’ll find OTC.
If you don’t use it too frequently and you suffer from mild to moderate psoriasis or seb derm, Denorex is very effective treatment.
Designed to treat Product Build Up
A gentle clarifying shampoo may sound like a contradiction in terms, but Aubrey Organics have done a fantastic job formulating a clarifying shampoo with mild ingredients.
It’s possibly the gentlest clarifying shampoo we’ve reviewed yet.
It smells nice, it will clarify your scalp, it will help remove dandruff caused by product build up.
But this comes at a cost – it will dry your scalp if used too much.
Like all clarifying shampoos – use absolutely only when needed.
Designed to treat Product Build Up
The self proclaimed “natural-product industry leader”, Giovanni shampoos are multiple award winning shampoos entirely manufactured in the USA.
The 50:50 hydrating/clarifying shampoo has an ambitious purpose; to both moisturize and clarify.
It largely achieves this, although some of you may wish to use a conditioner too.
Pura's D'or Argan Oil shampoo features an interesting formula that combines traditional therapy and herbalism.
It wears a premium price tag, but it is truly a premium product.
The active ingredient in Pura's product is the familiar zinc pyrithione. It also includes aloe vera and grapefruit seed extract, which have antifungal and antioxidant properties, and a number of fragrant essential oils.
Normally, shampoos containing argan oil send up a red flag for people with seborrheic dermatitis. The oleic acid content can exacerbate the condition. However, the amount present determines the sensitivity level, and a little should have no impact.
After using the shampoo, we found that it delivered a great performance without producing adverse reactions.
If you're sensitive to fragrance, cocamidopropyl betaine or phenooxyethanol, you may want to steer clear of this shampoo, but for many dandruff sufferers, it can achieve complete control of symptoms while providing a pleasant and surprisingly sudsy washing experience along with reliable treatment results.
Maple Holistics has created an innovative and gentle shampoo using essential oils rather than traditional active ingredients to control dandruff. Despite being marketed as a sage shampoo, it actually contains a number of essential oils including tea tree, jojoba, sage, tea tree, rosemary, peach kernel and spikenard oils. The thick, white, pearly shampoo smells like tea tree oil mixed with other herbal notes. Considering its lack of sulfates, its foaming abilities are impressive, and it provides an excellent washing experience. Due to the inclusion of panthenol, it leaves your hair feeling extremely soft. Although older formulations contained undesirable ingredients, the only contact allergen listed in the current formula is cocamidopropyl betaine.
If you suffer from mild seborrheic dermatitis or dry scalp, and you’re not sensitive to the fragrances in essential oils, this is a gentle, well-formulated shampoo that we highly recommend.
If you haven’t seen your favorite shampoo listed, chances are we have and it can be found if you check out all our sulfate free dandruff shampoo reviews.
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