Sulfates is a general term used to describe a multitude of Surfactants used in shampoos and other types of cleansers. They help to dissolve oils, and make bubbles. But you should know that how much a shampoo lathers is not a good indication of how well it is cleaning your hair.
Start reading the ingredient lists of your shampoos. While you're waiting for your conditioner to work, just read the labels. You won't recognize any of the words. The first ingredient is almost always water or some form of it. The second and third ingredients are usually the surfactants that we are talking about here. Here is a list of common surfactants you may find in your list. (Listed worst to best)
Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate- VERY harsh. Will strip your hair.
Ammonium Laureth Sulfate- Very harsh, but better than Ammonium Lauryl sulfate.
TEA lauryl sulfate- some sources say this is gentle. BUT, MEA/DEA/TEA are all substitutes for ammonia and are just as damaging. I would stay away.
TEA laureth sulfate- same as above.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate- Better, but still harsh
Sodium Laureth Sulfate- Gentle, good pick. This is the most common one. This one is ok to use, but there are even more gentle ones you can use.
Sodium Myreth Sulfate- This is very gentle. Often found in baby shampoos.
Cocamidoprpyl Betaine- This is very, very gentle. Often found in baby shampoos. This ingredient is also found in conditioners. It is the reason that light conditioners are able to clean your hair.
Decyl Polyglucose- Most gentle surfactant. Some say it is TOO gentle to be effective in cleansing.
Sorbitan Laurate-mild surfactant
PEG 80- mild surfactant
Polyoxethylene fatty alcohols- VERY mild
Polyoxethylene sorbitol esters- VERY mild
Alkanolamides- VERY mild
Sodium lauraminopropionate- VERY mild
What's so bad about Sulfates? According to the FDA, they received thousands of complaints about products with harsh sulfates. Some complaints include eye and scalp irritation, tangled hair, swelling of hands, face and arms, and split and fuzzy hair. There are also studies claiming that SLS (sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate) can cause cancer when combined with other chemicals.
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