Sulfates are additives used in many types of beauty products like, like shampoos, conditioners, soaps, body washes, household detergents, toothpaste, and even some make-up brands. They trigger the foaming action you see with soaps and detergents and can cause irritation.
Largely used as a foaming agent, sulfates break down oil and grease, dissolves it, and releases the dirt, oils, dead skin and sebum from your skin, hair, and scalp into the sudsy solution so that it can be easily rinsed away. Sulfates act as a surfactant, which is a natural or synthetic substance that when added to a liquid increases its wetting and spreading capacities, as with water.
Why are sulfates so bad?
Though there are many varieties of sulfates, the most common types of sulfates found in many beauty products are sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Though derived from coconuts, and relatively safe prior to processing, these surfactants, when contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a harmful byproduct created during the manufacturing process make surfactants harmful and an undesirable, and unpopular additive in personal care products.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1,4 dioxane is "possibly carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans". Though 1,4 dioxane has been found in personal care products in trace amounts, the risk could possibly still exist long term. After all, a carcinogen is a carcinogen – isn’t it?
One of the most harmful effects of SLS and SLES sulfates is that it breaks down skin cells, making it easy for the skin to absorb harmful chemicals, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream. In high concentrations, as in cleaning products, SLS is a huge skin irritant. When used in personal products, both SLS and SLES can irritate eyes, scalp and in some cases even your lungs.
Sulfates used in hair and skin care products strip your hair and skin of its natural oils as well as inflames the scalp and cause dandruff and itchy scalp due to its dehydrating nature. SLS can also aggravate sensitive skin conditions like eczema.
Like me, you may have never noticed that sulfates are irritating your skin or scalp until you take a break from it. I was suffering from dry, itchy scalp and dandruff and could not pinpoint what it was, even after several expensive trips to the dermatologist. It wasn't until I went to a beauty school to get my hair shampooed that the instructor suggested sulfate-free shampoo. I tried it for a month and the itching stopped and so did the flakes!
I know there are a lot of articles out there and research that shows that sulfates with minimal amounts of 1,4 dioxane are “safe”, but go sulfate-free for awhile and listen to your own body! Just because a “study says…” doesn’t mean it includes you and your well-being.