Sulfonates in shampoos

LC06LC06 Member
edited April 2019 in Hair
Hi there!
Just wanted to pick your brains on this:

How strong are sulfonates as surfactants? As far as I understand, they help boost the other surfactants.  Many people in the curly hair community have listed the sulfonates as being just as bad as SLS or SLES, in terms of stripping hair (strong surfactants)?  Any thoughts on this?




  • In my personal opinion Sodium alkylbenzene sulfonates are a bit milder than SLS.
    Just from personal experience, I haven't read any scientific study comparing their irritation potential.

    So, in theory a SLES+Sodium sulfonate might be less irritating than common SLES+SLS shampoos.

    You can likely make sulfonates milder by neutralizing LABSA with ammonium carbonate (to make an ammonium version), TEA or perhaps even Magnesium hydroxide.
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    edited April 2019
    The answer really depends on what you mean by the word "strong."  

    Is it an indication of how irritating it is to the skin?
    Is it an indication of how well it removes dirt & oil from hair?
    Is it an indication of how much protein it strips off the hair?

    The question is not easy to answer because there is no good answer without more information such as concentration. 

    20% SLS will have a vastly different effect than 2% SLS.

    To say SLS or Sulfonates are "bad" makes no sense without knowing the concentration.  You could have a "good" detergent like Glucoside that strips hair more than a low level of SLS.

    Things are much more complicated than "is one stronger than the other"? To that, there is no good answer. 

    If you're asking the question, does a shampoo made with SLS strip hair more than a shampoo made with sulfonates, my answer would be, I doubt you could tell a difference. In terms of foam and rinsing maybe you could but in terms of whether your hair is cleaned or damaged, you wouldn't be able to tell a difference.

    But I would say the same is true if you compared an SLS shampoo with a Decyl Glucoside shampoo. 

  • LC06LC06 Member
    edited April 2019
    Thanks for the replies. 

    I guess I am asking this from the point of view of a consumer.  As a chemist, I understand that concentration makes a difference in terms of performance.  Consumers have become so focused on ingredient labels nowadays that as soon as they see the words sulfates they freak out, and now it's the same for sulfonates. 
    That's why I was wondering in a formulation containing say 5% SLS, if I substituted it with say Sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate at 5%,  would it be a great surfactant in terms of cleansing power:   Is it capable of leaving the hair squeaky clean?  

    Is using sodium olefin sulfonate by itself good enough as a surfactant (putting aside foaming power)?
  • ngarayeva001ngarayeva001 Member
    edited April 2019
    Olefin sulfonate is cheap, mild, foaming well enough and not so difficult to thinken. I use it as a primary surfactant (I am not a chemist to put it straight). Check out OGX shampoos: Olefin Sulfonate + CAPB +SCI (in some versions) IMO one of the best shampoo brands in the market with much better performance than some ‘salon brands’. And it’s sulfate free.
    SLES is ‘strogner’ (when considering squeeky clean effect), but olefin sulfonate is close if you don’t add too much CAPB and other milder materials. You can always use ‘natural’ glucosides but they are terrible in shampoo.
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    From a consumer standpoint, I'd say there is no difference between sulfates and sulfonates when substituting 5% SLS and 5% C14-16 olefin sulfonate.

    You would need a secondary surfactant to use a sulfonate but you need that with SLS too. There is not much difference in terms of what consumers can tell. And a motivated chemist could make formulas using sulfates and sulfonates work exactly the same.

    However, if the consumer is psychologically conditioned to think sulfates are terrible and sulfonates are terrible, that will affect their perception of how the product works.

    Bottom line is that the differences consumers see are only psychological.
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