If you're someone who takes a look at the ingredients list of the products you purchase, you're on to something. Cosmetics, in particular, are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so it's possible that questionable ingredients might find their way into the products you use on your hair and body regularly.
One such ingredient is known as sulfates, or chemicals in shampoos and other cleaning agents that help rid the skin and scalp of oil and dirt. On product labels, they're most commonly found under the names sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate and ammonium laureth sulfate.
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"Sulfates work to cleanse and lather hair, but they can sometimes leave mild, undesirable side effects such as color-fading, dryness, brittleness and redness to the scalp," explains Dendy Engelman, MD, cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Shafer Clinic in New York City. "When a shampoo is sulfate-free, it does not contain any of these cleansing chemicals, which is usually best and safest for your hair."
The good news is that more and more hair care brands are formulating their products to be made without sulfates, which is especially convenient for those with sensitive skin, a dry or sensitive scalp or dry or brittle hair.
Opting for a sulfate-free shampoo can also be beneficial for people with color-treated hair to help preserve their hair color for longer, says Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York City.
How We Chose
We chatted with dermatologists to better understand what to look for in a shampoo that does not contain sulfates. We chose our top picks based on their recommendation and criteria, including:
- Hair type
The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoos
- Best Overall: Playa Every Day Shampoo ($28, PlayaBeauty)
- Best Drugstore Pick: Dove Hair Therapy Breakage Remedy Shampoo ($14.99, Amazon)
- Best Splurge: Alterna Caviar Anti-Aging Replenishing Moisture Shampoo ($35, Sephora)
- Best for Processed Hair: Olaplex No. 4 Shampoo ($30, Amazon)
- Best for Curly Hair: SheaMoisture Curl and Shine Coconut Shampoo for Curly Hair ($11.15, Amazon)
- Best for Dandruff: First Aid Beauty Anti-Dandruff Shampoo with 1% Pyrithione Zinc ($30, Ulta)
1. Best Overall: Playa Every Day Shampoo
No matter your hair type, texture or style, this shampoo will work for you (hence its likable name).
It's formulated without sulfates but contains ultra-hydrating ingredients including coconut that help cleanse the strands without stripping them of their natural oils. This makes the shampoo ideal for everything from straight and wavy hair to curly and coily, as well as an array of textures, including fine, medium and thick.
Buy it: PlayaBeauty.com; Price: $28
2. Best Drugstore Pick: Dove Hair Therapy Breakage Remedy Shampoo
Dr. Garshick is a big fan of this drugstore brand, which is specially formulated for dry and damaged hair.
It helps lock in nutrients thanks to its hydrating formula and does not contain any sulfates nor does it contain other potentially harmful ingredients such as parabens, mineral oil, aluminum or phthalates.
It's a plus that it comes in such a large bottle, which should last you several months, depending on your hair length and usage.
Buy it: Amazon ($14.99 for 33.8 oz); Walmart.com ($7.98 for 13.5 oz)
3. Best Splurge: Alterna Caviar Anti-Aging Replenishing Moisture Shampoo
This luxurious shampoo helps clean, restore and hydrate all hair types without the use of harsh ingredients such as sulfates.
It's loaded with a rich blend of nutrients, including vitamins A, C and D and omega-3 fatty acids to visibly improve the appearance of hair and reduce the damaging effects caused by the environment, such as UV rays.
In addition to being formulated without sulfates, it's also free of parabens, phthalates and synthetic colors.
Buy it: Sephora.com ($35); Ulta.com ($35)
4. Best for Processed Hair: Olaplex No. 4 Shampoo
Hair stylists swear by this hair-care line, especially for their clients with overly processed, dry or brittle hair. Kali Ferrara, senior colorist at the salon project by Joel Warren, likes to use it to help revive curl patterns in her clients who color their hair.
"This product contains a bond builder that helps the hair bonds heal and multiply, instead of break," she explains. What it does not contain is even more exciting: sulfates, parabens or phthalates.
Buy it: Amazon; Price: $30
5. Best for Curly Hair: SheaMoisture Curl and Shine Coconut Shampoo for Curly Hair
Those with naturally curly hair will love this sulfate-free shampoo, which offers hydrating coconut and neem oils to keep curls bouncy and shiny.
It also contains hibiscus flower extracts, which help enhance hair's natural elasticity while cutting down on breakage caused by myriad factors, including heat styling, coloring, aggressive brushing and more.
Buy it: Amazon ($11.15); Walmart.com ($11.99)
6. Best for Dandruff: First Aid Beauty Anti-Dandruff Shampoo With 1% Pyrithione Zinc
As many as 50 million Americans have dandruff, per a January-June 2011 report in the International Journal of Trichology. If you're one of them, Brendan Camp, MD, a Manhattan-based dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology, recommends this sulfate-free shampoo, as it contains the active ingredient pyrithione zinc, which helps to reduce flaking and irritation.
The formula is also color-safe, for those who dye their hair, and formulated with silk peptides that help nourish and strengthen the strands to prevent breakage.
What to Know Before You Buy a Sulfate-Free Shampoo
Here are some features to look for when shopping for shampoos without sulfates.
There are many variations of sulfates, but the two main types Dr. Engelman suggests looking out for on ingredient labels are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).
She also recommends avoiding any other potentially damaging chemicals like parabens, silicones, etc., as they are known to weaken hair over time and hinder its growth.
2. Hair Type
New York City-based trichologist and hairstylist Penny James recommends shopping for sulfate-free shampoos as you would regular shampoos: by your hair type.
"If you have thick, kinky hair, look for a sulfate-free shampoo that still has hydrating ingredients like coconut oil-acid," she says. "If you have thin hair and an oily scalp, look for a shampoo with volumizing ingredients like magnesium and biotin."
Some manufacturers offer shampoo refills that reduce the use of plastic packaging, making them more eco-friendly, Dr. Camp says. If you're someone with an eye on helping the environment, making smart purchases in terms of zero-waste products can go a long way.
When deciding how much to spend on a product, Dr. Camp suggests considering how often you will use it.
"If it is something that you will use frequently and need to spend money on often, it may make more sense to purchase a less expensive product than, say, one that you do not use as often and may last longer," he says.
- InStyle Magazine: David Babaii
- InStyle Magazine: S is for Sulfate-Free
- Woman's Day: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Shampoo
- Dendy Engelman, MD, cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Shafer Clinic in New York City
- Marisa Garshick, MD, dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York
- Kali Ferrara, senior colorist at Roy Teeluck Salon in New York City
- International Journal of Trichology
- Brendan Camp, MD, a Manhattan-based dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology
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