Beauty News

Everything you need to know about sulphates

Sulphates – or sulfates – have been steadily acquiring a fairly negative name for themselves. With speculation rife as to their cancer-causing capabilities (rumours which are, as yet, unsubstantiated), many brands are offering sulphate-free formulas. Meaning, they’re developing cleansers without the lather-inducing detergents known as sodium laureth sulphate, sodium lauryl sulphate and ammonium lauryl sulphate (SLS, SLES and ALS), among others.

So, what are sulphates and why are they necessary? Sulphates have long been added to all manner of cleansing products – {shampoo}, toothpaste, {body wash} and even facial cleansers – because of their ability to emulsify oil and greasy substances, creating a lather that leaves hair, teeth, skin (whatever) feeling über-squeaky clean. 

They’re derived from sulphur (which does occur naturally, but in this case is usually synthesised from petrolatum) and lauryl alcohol, which comes primarily from coconut oil. This basic reaction can produce hundreds of different sulphates, but ‘sodium laureth’ and ‘sodium lauryl’ are those you’ll see listed most often.

The general consensus among research scientists is that sulphates are totally fit for purpose however, there is also some evidence to suggest that sulphates can irritate sensitive {scalps}, cause frizziness in thick/curly hair and accelerate (artificial) colour fade. Sulphates also provoke questions about sustainability. Petrolatum is (obviously) running out, so many companies are going ‘sulphate-free’ for eco-reasons (something we totally ‘dig’). 

{rahua}, {Pureology}, {Living Proof}, {Briogeo} and {OUAI Haircare} are proudly sulphate-free, making them ideal for those who prefer to take care of their hair the more natural way, whilst doing the world a huge favour. That said, if you’re new to the ‘no sulphates’ thing, be warned that you will probably notice a lesser lather – this makes no difference to the cleaning action of the shampoo, but it is somehow less psychologically satisfying.

There is still a lot of space for debate surrounding sulphates and, as with everything, we advocate freedom of choice in all things. We’re not completely convinced by the sulphate scaremongers, but appreciate that there are many things we did in the last twenty years, that we certainly wouldn’t do now… What are your thoughts on sulphates? We’d love to hear your stance.


Verity Douglas

Verity Douglas

Content Editor

Verity is our Content Editor and a Cult Beauty veteran. Currently on maternity leave, raising Cult Beauty’s honorary ‘word nerd’, Tabitha, she speaks fluent ‘beauty’ and loves nothing more than the marriage of language and lip balm (and cleanser and candles… ad infinitum). Nothing can stop her from quoting Nancy Mitford, treating herself to yet another Bella Freud candle for her desk or buying that pilgrim-esque collared or heavily fringed outfit she’s been eyeing. You can trust her to debunk widespread beauty myths and dispense invaluable advice with ease…