The 25 Best Sulfate Free Dandruff Shampoos

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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?

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 [1].

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’ [2]. 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”.[3].

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 [4]. 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 for 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 [7].

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 [10].

Sulfate myths

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) [11]. Not quite the same as extra virgin coconut oil!

3. A ‘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 a 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 Specialities Free & Clear Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp and Psoriasis

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.

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BIOM8 Skin Conditioning Oil

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

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!

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Maple Holistics Hydrate Shampoo

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.

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Nurture My Body Everyday Fragrance Free Shampoo

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.

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Dead Sea Spa MAGIK Mineral Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp and Psoriasis

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.

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Vichy Dercos Anti-Dandruff Sensitive Shampoo

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.

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Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

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.

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Tru Moroccan Repair 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.

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Eucerin Dermocapillaire Calming Urea Scalp Treatment

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.

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Scalp 18 Coal Tar Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

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.

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Maple Holistics Tea Tree Oil Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

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.

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Cleure Volumizing Shampoo

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.

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Capasal

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

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

While the shampoo is SLS, fragrance and paraben free there are still a few known contact allergens in there. Unfortunately it smells like a coal tar shampoo too.

That aside Capasal is an excellent shampoo for those who suffer mild to moderate scalp psoriasis.

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Denorex Extra Strength 2 in 1 Dandruff Shampoo and Conditioner

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and 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.

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Aubrey Organics Green Tree Clarifying Shampoo

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.

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Giovanni 50:50 Balanced Hydrating-Clarifying Shampoo

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.

Excellent!

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Pura Dor Argan Oil Scalp & Dandruff Treatment

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

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.

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Maple Holistics Sage Shampoo for Heavy Dandruff

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

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.

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Regenpure DR Dandruff Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

Regenure DR Hair and Scalp Treatment is a 1% Ketoconazole formulation shampoo combined with Salicylic Acid. The company ave been particularly clever with their formulation and marketing – positioning the shampoo as a gentler alternative to Nizoral. The company have largely achieved that too. Adding Salicylic Acid to get rid of the dandruff and ketoconazole to remove the dandruff is an inspired combination too.

That said, it’s still a 1% ketoconazole shampoo. Given the choice I’d choose 2% every time, but this would require a prescription in Regenpures largest market – the USA.

Overall a very interesting, innovative shampoo.

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Bioderma Node P Apaisant Anti-Dandruff Shampoo for Sensitive Scalps

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

Bioderma Node P Apaisant Anti-Dandruff Soothing Shampoo is a fabulous option for sensitive, irritated conditions of mild to moderate dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. With a combination of 2 anti-dandruff actives and dry flake busting salicylic acid, its overall efficacy is excellent. It washes and smells great and if it weren't for the presence of fragrances and silicones it would be an almost perfect sensitive scalp friendly formulation.

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Sebamed Everyday Shampoo

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

Sebamed is one of our favorite manufacturers and they've largely done it again.

All in all we recommend this shampoo, with reservations, for everyday use for normal skin, dry scalps, and sensitive skin. The reservations are the addition of 3 known contact allergens; Fragrance, Propylene Glycol and Phenoxyethanol.

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many shampoos out there that gently clean the hair effectively and add shine and softness, without including a handful of potential irritants.

Compared to most on the market, Sebamed has done a good job.

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Polytar Liquid

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

Polytar is an absolute legend of the psoriasis community.

If you suffer from mild scalp Psoriasis then this stuff works for so many of you.

Bear in mind that it stinks like your grandad's pipe and will strip your hair and scalp of their natural oils.

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Skinchanted Peek A Poo No Poo Dry Scalp Treatment

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

Almost world class and a very interesting concept - a commercial bottle of a No Poo treatment. Unfortunately there is a commercial grade preservative and anti-mold agent in there.

Skinchanted Peek a Poo really ought to be called "Nearly No Poo".

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Mineral Fusion Anti-Dandruff Mineral Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp and Psoriasis

Mineral Fusion's formula contains an interesting blend of therapeutic agents. It features salicylic acid, which is normally used in conjunction with other active ingredients that kill the offending fungus or slow down cell regeneration.

Used alone, salicylic acid will exfoliate existing dandruff, but it won't prevent new dandruff from forming.

If you’re willing to take a leap of faith and trust in the undocumented healing powers of the product's mineral content, which includes extracts of malachite, smithsonite, rhodochrosite, and hematite, this formula might be a great option. The shampoo also contains tea tree and oregano oils, which are both effective for treating seborrheic dermatitis.

You won't find parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfate, artificial color or fragrance on the label.

Unfortunately, it does contain the contact allergens potassium sorbate, coco-betaine, ethylhexylglycerin and dimethicone.

In use, this mineral shampoo delivers luxurious lather and a squeaky clean finish. While its efficacy in controlling dandruff inspires some skepticism, its overall performance is top-notch.

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ASP Kitoko Dandruff Control Cleanser

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

This may looks and feel like a real top end luxurious wash but the list of needless known contact allergens and the high price put me off recommending this to anyone who suffers dry scalp dandruff.

There are other better options out there.

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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.

References

[1] Trüeb, R. M. (2007). Shampoos: ingredients, efficacy and adverse effects. JDDG, 5(5), 356-365.

[2] Götte, E. (1964). Skin compatibility of tensides measured by their capacity for dissolving zein protein. pp. 83-90.

[3] Broze, G. (Ed.). (1999). Handbook of Detergents: Properties. CRC Press.

[4] Bondi, C. A., Marks, J. L., Wroblewski, L. B., Raatikainen, H. S., Lenox, S. R., & Gebhardt, K. E. (2015). Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. EHI, 9, 27.

[5] Törmä, H., Lindberg, M., & Berne, B. (2008). Skin barrier disruption by sodium lauryl sulfate-exposure alters the expressions of involucrin, transglutaminase 1, profilaggrin, and kallikreins during the repair phase in human skin in vivo. JID, 128(5), 1212-1219.

[6] MHRA. (2013). Aqueous cream: contains sodium lauryl sulfate which may cause skin reactions, particularly in children with eczema.

[7] Farage, M. A., Katsarou, A., & Maibach, H. I. (2006). Sensory, clinical and physiological factors in sensitive skin: a review. CD, 55(1), 1-14.

[8] FDA. (2015). CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. 21CFR172.822.

[9] European Union Council. (2009). Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009. Official Journal of the European Union, L 342/59.

[10] EMA. (2015). Background review for sodium lauryl sulfate used as an excipient. 351898/2014.

[11] Klahr, E., Trieselt, W., Trapp, H., & Widder, R. (1982). U.S. Patent No. 4,349,669. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Comments 8

  1. Marelynn January 2, 2017
    • Chris Challis January 3, 2017
  2. Peter Parker June 9, 2017
  3. Shelley June 21, 2017
  4. Missy September 13, 2017
  5. Christian November 2, 2017

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