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Sulfates 101: The Good, the Bad, the Allergy

By Justine McGrath, Guest Blogger

I found out I was allergic to sulfates while taking medication. Once I started taking it, my skin suddenly turned bright red, uncomfortably tight, and itchy all over. Studying myself in the mirror, I remember thinking that I looked like a monster that had been scorched by the sun. I immediately called my mom for words of comfort and wisdom, while wailing into the phone, “What’s happening to meeee?!”

“Sulfate allergies are quite common,” my doctor said as she jotted down notes on a metal clipboard.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, sulfates are in a ton of major beauty products, but it took ingesting them for me to notice my allergy.

Since my sulfate-sensitivity surfaced, I’ve made it a goal to become more educated about the little buggers and eliminate them from my beauty regimen entirely. But even if you’re not allergic to them like me, sulfates can still do damage to your skin and hair. I’ve compiled some FAQs about sulfates below with the hopes you’ll proceed on the path to better beauty health:

What are sulfates?

You probably guessed by now that sulfates are derived from sulfur. They masquerade in the form of compounds called sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). You can find them listed on the ingredients label of many beauty products, usually displayed as the second or third ingredient (which is super helpful when you need to do a quick check). These compounds create foamy lathers and are essentially what make your beauty and household cleaning products bubbly.

Why are sulfates damaging?

Chances are, you use products with sulfates in them all the time, so how bad can they really be? Sure, you might not have drastic reactions like I do, but your skin and hair could still be getting damaged. As surfactants, sulfates work to remove dirt and oil from your skin and hair. But oftentimes, these ingredients strip your body of essential oils, break down skin cells over time, and cause follicular damage. Essentially, they dry you out and leave you with broken hair and dry skin.

What products contain sulfates?

I was shocked to find out how many products contain sulfates: shampoos, bar and liquid soaps, toothpaste, and even the moisture strip on your razor! Aside from beauty products, you’ll find sulfates around your house in the form of carpet cleaners, dish detergent, and even toilet soaps. Let’s face it, do you want to brush your teeth with things you put down your toilet? I sure hope not.

How can I avoid them?

Luckily, nowadays many items at your local drug or beauty store are labeled “sulfate-free.” A quick label check will also reveal what’s lurking in your products. Personally, I’ve become fond of brands like Desert Essence ®, Acure, and Burt’s Bees®, which typically use more mindful ingredients. Take it a step further and browse the beauty aisle at your local health food store because they usually have a myriad of sulfate-free options.

It’s true that sulfate-free alternatives can sometimes be more expensive, but the result is well worth it. Since switching over, I’ve noticed my hair has grown noticeably longer and softer, and I haven’t fallen victim to as many random breakouts on my face. My skin and hair feel healthier and less dry overall, and I feel better for being more informed about what I’m putting on my body. If you’re not 100 percent sold on switching over, challenge yourself to a three-month trial period and see if you notice any differences. I’m betting you’ll be a sulfate-free convert before you know it.

Justine McGrath is a copywriter by day and a stargazer by night. She was born and raised in San Diego, California and is passionate about travel, J.K. Rowling, and burritos. Check out more of her writing here.