Are you on the hunt for sulfate-free and alcohol-free products because you’ve heard those ingredients wreak havoc on your hair and skin? You’re not alone. The idea of a “sulfate-free” shampoo started appearing in our Google searches around 2004 and has been steadily rising since.
But what is a sulfate, anyway? What does the alcohol in skin care really do? It might not be what you think. Here’s a quick rundown on why you might want to give these two ingredients a chance as you read the back of the bottle.
What are they? A sulfate is a type of surfactant – a mixture that attracts water and oil. In other words, it’s the ingredient that lets your shampoo (or soap, or body wash) separate dirt and oil from your skin, and lets your shower water carry that dirt and oil down the drain. Without them, shampoos wouldn’t work nearly as well.
Why do they get a bad rap? Sulfates are good at what they do. Some are so good, in fact, that they can strip your skin of the natural oils that keep it healthy. Salon professionals, often under direction of the marketing rules for their latest vendor, will blame sulfates for stripping color out of your hair.
The real story: Some sulfates, such as those made from the fatty acids of coconut or palm oil, are perfectly safe, effective and preferable over sulfate-free varieties. It all depends on the formulation. A sulfate-free product might sound good but won’t necessarily give you the best results.
Sulfates typically go through a process called ethoxylation, which creates some nasty residuals known to be harmful to humans (and the environment). While we don't use any cleansers classified as sulfates, we do use a very gentle cleanser called sodium lauryl sulfoacetate that, at first glance, looks like a sulfate. However, it is in fact a super mild cleanser that is good for people whose skin is too sensitive even for soap. It is not ethoxylated and is totally free of residues.
What are they? Alcohols help your shampoo or skincare product evaporate quickly, reducing drying time and often preventing hair or skin from feeling greasy. They also help your product distribute evenly through your hair or over your skin.
Why do they get a bad rap? When we read “alcohol” on an ingredient label, we tend to associate it with the type in our first aid cabinet – isopropyl alcohol, a.k.a. rubbing alcohol – one the harshest varieties, specifically formulated to repel moisture, sterilize, and strip away everything in its path. No wonder we don’t want it anywhere near our skin!
The real story: Put simply, there’s more than one type of alcohol. Some cause dryness (and therefore dry, frizzy hair). But others are known as fatty alcohols, and are naturally suited to condition and moisturize. Cetearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol are two of the most common fatty alcohols in hair products. These particular alcohols are emollients, and they are known to soften your skin and hair.
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