Article by: Perry Romanowski

Have you ever wondered why companies sell sulfate free products?  If there is some safety issue with sulfates, why do companies continue to sell those products?  Why would L’Oreal sell a sulfate free shampoo and also a sulfate containing shampoo?

It all comes down to marketing…mostly.

Interest in sulfate free

A while back I was interviewed by a reporter at Teen Vogue about sulfate free products. It’s a good article and for the most part, my views on sulfate free products were properly portrayed. There was a fair amount of fear mongering from some of the other experts they quoted, but that’s not unexpected. Some “experts” are not always knowledgable or motivated to get the science right.

The article did make me think about sulfate free and how and why it came about.  As far as I can remember, companies started making sulfate-free claims back in the late 1990’s. It began with salon brands, but steadily more mainstream brands like L’Oreal started getting into the act.

5 Reasons for Sulfate Free Formulas

In my view, there are really 5 reasons that companies sell sulfate-free shampoos.  Only one of these has to do with concern for the consumer.  None of these have anything to do with product performance.

Irritation

There is no doubt about it, for almost everyone sulfates can be irritating to skin and scalp. In fact, when we do chemical irritation tests the positive irritation control is a solution of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. This is because when held on the skin for a long period of time it will cause skin irritation and inflammation in almost anyone’s skin.  Of course, shampoos and body washes are meant to be put on your hair or skin then quickly rinsed off so irritation is not typically a problem. But some people have more sensitive skin than others, so for them avoiding sulfates may be a good idea.  For most other people, this isn’t a real problem.

Incidentally, most things that can clean your hair will irritate the skin if you leave it on long enough.  Even sulfate-free surfactants like Lauryl Decyl Glucoside will be irritating if left on skin.

Differentiation

The main reason companies sell sulfate free products is because they want to have a way to differentiate themselves from all the other products on the market.  If you look at the top 10 selling shampoos (in mass market store like Target & Walmart) all of them are sulfate formulas.  Therefore, if you are a smaller salon brand, one way you can make yourself stand out those big guys is to base your formula on sulfate-free formulas.  That gives you some reason to tell your clients to buy your shampoo over their’s.

The sulfate free shampoos work well enough, but they are more expensive and don’t work quite as well as sulfate containing products.

Fear Marketing

Now, you might convince some people to buy your shampoo over someone else’s because it doesn’t have sulfates, but most savvy consumers will ask “Why”?  You need some answer and it can’t be “because it’s different.”

This is where companies had to resort to fear marketing, exaggerating the irritation concern of sulfates, spreading rumors about cancer, and making up dubious claims about sulfates stripping color or damaging hair.

Sulfate formulas are not generally irritating to skin when used normally.

Sulfates do not cause cancer.

Sulfates do not strip hair color or damage hair more than sulfate-free formulas.

Natural

Another related reason you see sulfate free formulas is because sulfates are not typically approved as natural surfactants. Sulfate detergents are not natural. Of course, almost none of the sulfate-free detergents are natural either but that doesn’t seem to bother natural marketers.

I should mention that the COSMOS natural standard does allow for Sodium Lauryl Sulfate if it is derived from Coconut oil.  Natural formulas do not have to be sulfate-free.

Popularity

Perhaps the most important reason there are sulfate free products is because they are popular.  If you look at Google search results, you’ll see since 2008 interest in sulfate free has steadily increased.  There are so few new claims that shampoo producers can make, they’ll latch on to anything that is popular with consumers.  At the moment, sulfate free is a popular claim.

It still remains a small segment of the market, likely because sulfate free products don’t work as well, but it seems like the products are here to stay.

Sulfate freedom

There is a lot of misinformation about sulfate free products that consumers, stylists, and salon owners believe. While it’s unlikely this blog post will do much to dissuade true believers, if it makes a few people look more deeply into the subject, it will have been successful.

Sulfate free products are perfectly fine products but they are not safer or more effective than standard sulfate containing products. Don’t fall for dubious marketing.

About the Author

Perry Romanowski

Perry has been formulating cosmetic products and inventing solutions to solve consumer problems since the early 1990’s. Additionally, he has written and edited numerous articles and books, taught continuing education classes for industry scientists, and developed successful websites. His latest book is Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry 3rd Edition published by Allured.

3 comments

  1. Elena

    In regards to the claim that “Sulfates do not cause cancer”, Sodium Laureth Sulfate can contain 1,4-dioxane which is a know carcinogen. What is your opinion on this? Thanks!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      The thing that makes something any ingredient a risk is both the nature of the ingredient and the level of exposure. The level of exposure of 1,4-dioxane from shampoo use is well below that which is determined to be safe by the EPA for drinking water. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=953&tid=199 Everything can be dangerous at some level. The fact that 1,4-dioxane is a suspected carcinogen is not a cause for concern according to safety testing.

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