Article by: Perry Romanowski

Somewhere along the line surfactants which contain the name “sulfate” got a bad name. It’s difficult to say exactly how this negative reputation was developed but I suspect it was the result of a clever salon shampoo marketer who was looking for a way to make their higher priced brands stand out from the more popular store brands. Since they couldn’t compete in terms of formulation performance or advertising, highlighting the negative aspects of the competition was a logical strategy. sulfate-free-shampoo

Nothing moves alternative products like fear of conventional ones.

Anyway, this idea was spread to salon stylists (who get commissions from the sale of salon brands) which then spread to consumers. Now, it’s pretty firmly established in a high percentage of people’s minds that sulfate containing surfactants are harsh, more color stripping and bad for your hair. There’s little evidence for this but it persists. So, cosmetic formulators have to learn how to formulate sulfate free.

The challenge of formulating sulfate free

The reason we traditionally use sulfate surfactants is because they are effective, inexpensive, easy to formulate and easy to thicken. Sulfate free alternatives lack many of these characteristics. Realize that you are going to have a greater challenge to make formulas that foam the same way, clean, and meet cost goals. It’s likely that you’ll need an additional thickening system as salt doesn’t thicken many of these alternative surfactants.

Options for sulfate free

There are a number of options for making a sulfate free shampoo. Here are some strategies various companies have used.

1. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate free – since SLS is the big objection one simple solution is to use Magnesium Laurel Sulfate and then advertise your product as Sodium Lauryl free. This is technically true and might be appealing to some consumers. However, it still contains the term ‘sulfate’ so this won’t be effective for most people.

2. Sodium something else – Some alternatives to SLS include
Sodium Lauryl Sarcosinate
Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate
Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate
Sodium Lauryl Methyl Isethionate
Sodium Lauroyl Taurate
Sodium Lauroamphoacetate

3. Try a non-sodium name – If you want to get rid of the sodium from your label completely, there are some other options.
Decyl Glycoside
Lauryl Glucoside
Coco Glucosides
PEG 40 Glyceryl Cocoate
Potassium Laureth Phosphate

4. Alternative detergent systems – One other option is to offer a dry shampoo based on starch. You can easily call these formulas sulfate free.

While science may not agree with the notion that sulfates are inherently bad for people’s hair, you have to make products that both your marketing department and ultimately, your consumer wants. Sometimes this means ditching the traditional surfactants for other options. To be a complete cosmetic chemist you need to know these options.



  1. Avatar

    Hello perry Sir
    I used Sodium Cocoyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Laurylglucosides Hydroxypropylsulfonate and Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine in sulfate free formulation and for thickner i used PEG-120 Methyl Glucose Trioleate and PEG-150 Distearate. The Shampoo Appearance, Foam, Cleasing Property and overall product quality is good. Its gives viscosity as i want but after 4-5 days the shampoo forms a seperation. it shows two layer. What should i do for to prevent seperation

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      You should conduct a knockout experiment to see what ingredient is causing the separation. Also, I’d suggest you post your question in our forum.

  2. Avatar

    Hi Perry,
    Is it completely manufacturers choice to use which surfactant in the product ? Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate , Isethionate, Glutamate, which one is most preferred in the industry?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Yes, it is your choice. Most companies use sulfates but for non-sulfate versions they go with Sarcosinates, Taurates or Isethionates.

  3. Avatar

    Hi, Are there any formulas where i can only use Coco glucoside and Cocoamidopropyl betaine – Sulfate free Dehyton PK45 ? I am struggling to find any other ingredients in South AFrica

  4. Avatar

    Please suggest thickeners for sulfate free transparent shampoo…..

  5. Avatar
    silvia Ramirez

    Hello perry i want to start my own business selling to salons but i dont have lots of money
    i would like to formulate a moisterazing shampoo and conditioner in a inexpensive way so any advise would be very helpful and thank you for sharing your expertise with the world sylvia

  6. Avatar

    Hi Perry,
    Is Coco betain also one option for the solution 3 above ?
    And can liquid soap base be used as a detergent for a shampoo formulation ?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Yes, but it doesn’t foam on it’s own very well and it is more expensive.

      Yes, liquid soap can be used but it would make a terrible shampoo. It is very drying to hair and does not leave it in good condition.

  7. Pingback:Sulfates or Nah? – CarmelRoads

  8. Avatar
    Kai Hedlund

    Hi I´m looking for suppliers of “Sodium Lauroyl methyl Isethionate” is there anyone who knows any company supplying manufcaturing this ingredient please support.

    Thanks in advance

    Best regards / Kai

    1. Avatar

      Yes, Liz Earle’s shampoos

  9. Avatar

    Hi Perry,

    I just recently joined the cosmetic science industry and came across your sites (this one and The Beauty Brains). I found them to be a very useful resource particularly when you explain the more technical details at the consumer level.

    I am having a problem with a customer regarding this “sulfate-free” claim. We are formulating a cleanser using Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate which has residual sodium sulfates at around 0.3-0.5%. In a finished formula, the sodium sulfate will be at ppm levels, but our customer wants to claim sulfate-free like L’Oreal does (falsely at times). Could you recommend any resources I could look into to show that 1) these residual sulfates are nearly impossible to completely eliminate when using sulfuric acid in a reaction and 2) these sulfates at ppm levels are not harmful?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Hello Bharat – sulfates at those levels are definitely not harmful. They are not actually harmful at higher levels either. I think you can technically still make the claim ‘sulfate free’ if the INCI name for you Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate does not include sulfate in the name. Although I suppose if you know there are sulfates in there you can’t really do that. hmm. I would suggest you pose this question to your surfactant supplier. Also, post it in our cosmetic science forum.

  10. Avatar

    Does Ammonium LS have a smell issue? How come it is milder? Ammonia is a pretty harsh cleaner.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      I don’t think it is milder. No, there is no smell issue with ALS.

  11. Avatar

    In my opinion the most difficult aspect of sulphate-free formulation is thickening, simply because thickening agents that possess good sensorials are expensive. There are surfactants that are almost as good for foam as traditional surfactants. Having said all that, ammonium lauryl sulphate leaves sodium lauryl sulphate way behind when it comes to foam quality and mildness. As far as I am concerned SLS is great for use as engine cleaner but horrible as a personal care component.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Yeah, this can be a challenge.

      Interesting observation about ALS versus SLS. I really wasn’t able to tell a difference when I compared them for performance. In the US for example you would be hard pressed to see a performance difference between Suave (ALS based) and VO5 (SLS based).

      1. Avatar

        I spent months and months experimenting with SLeS and CAPB to make a shower gel. Unwilling to use SLS because of its high irritation factor I had to use a surfactant concentration of 40% to get the foam profile I wanted. Whereas with the ALS/ALES/CAPB combination, 30% surfactants produced far more foam than the 40% SLeS/CAPB. I also tried ALS/SLeS/CAPB but again needed nearly 40% concentration. I deduce that SLeS is quite poor at making bubbles.

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