Sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS or sulfates for short, are the foaming agents found in almost every beauty product, and is helpful for making the formula lather up and go further when mixed with water. They live in plain sight; whether it’s a face wash or a shampoo, you can bet that sulfates are likely to be in there.
The problem is that sulfates are extremely drying. When you lather up a sulfate shampoo, it strips away your natural oils in your scalp, known as sebum. Sulfates can’t tell the difference between excess oil/dirt and natural oils. This sebum is actually good for your hair, and is what gives it its natural shine or glow, so having these stripped out leaves your hair dry, brittle and vulnerable to damage.
Sulfate products also often contain silicones and waxes to attempt to balance out this stripping of oils. This can then create severe product build-up on your hair follicles. This blocks your pores and can even prevent new hairs from growing, leaving you with heavy, flat hair that lacks volume.
It’s true that conditioning your hair goes some way to replenishing this moisture, but it’s not the same as keeping the natural sebum in there.
HOW DO SULFATES AFFECT RED HAIR?
As red hair strands are more fragile and coarser than other shades, any use of sulfates can make ginger strands even more delicate and susceptible to breakage than other hair shades.
Swapping to sulfate-free hair products can help relieve any product build-up you might be experiencing, and still wash your hair properly without stripping out your natural sebum. SLS-free can also help with heaps of other hair niggles you probably didn’t even know you had, too. Things like scalp irritation and frizz can be alleviated when you switch to sulfate-free hair products. And, because natural oils aren’t being removed unnecessarily, swapping to sulfate-free can leave your hair feeling softer and more conditioned, giving it more life and shine.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SWAP TO SULFATE-FREE HAIR PRODUCTS?
Your hair only ever produces the amount of oil that is being demanded of it. So when you switch to sulfate-free hair products, there is a transition period where your hair, scalp and sebum glands are adjusting to life in the land of SLS-free.
In the first week or two you may notice a difference in oil production. This is a reaction to the lack of sulfates, meaning your sebum glands are producing slightly more or less natural oil than before the swap. This transition phase is just temporary while your hair gets used to being sulfate-free.
If you’re experiencing product build-up too, this may also contribute to the transition phase. A handy tip is to either use a cleanser before making the switch to sulfate-free, or start by doing a double shampoo for your first few SLS-free washes to get any leftover product out of your roots.
For around the same length of time, up to a couple of weeks, you may feel like your hair is more matted than normal while it’s wet. This transition reaction is your hair trying to expel the product build-up that the sulfates were creating.
One obvious change when using sulfate-free is that lathering up can be slightly harder work. This doesn’t mean the products aren’t working, it is simply the lack of sulfates. Don’t let this lure you into applying more shampoo though – it means you just need to work a bit harder at lathering, and add some more water to spread it further. This will get easier with time, so if you’re struggling in the beginning, try a double wash of shampoo to see if that helps things feel cleaner up there.
Stick with it and it’ll all be worthwhile.