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It seems like you can’t go shopping for any kind of hair care product these days without declarations of what the shampoo has been made without. Sulfate free shampoo, all-natural shampoo, and organic shampoo are now just as common options as different shampoo scents.
But what does it all mean?
The thing is if these normally common ingredients are being excluded, are they not as good for us as we once thought? Unfortunately, the answer isn't so obvious. First, we have to understand what a sulfate is in the first place to understand if it's helping or hindering us from reaching our hair goals and if an SLS free shampoo is the right way forward!
Living Proof Full Shampoo
Joico Color Endure Violet Shampoo & Conditioner
Reform Volume Shampoo & Conditioner
Skin Science ACV Shampoo & Conditioner
Olaplex No.5 Conditioner
Grace & Stella Argan Oil Shampoo + Conditioner
Biolage R.A.W. Nourish Shampoo
Oribe Gold Lust Repair & Restore Conditioner
What are sulfates?
Sulfates are in almost everything because they’re so good at foaming up and giving us those suds that make us feel like something is really working. Seriously - that’s why so many toothpaste, shampoo, and body wash formulas contain them!
That’s not to say that they do nothing other than foam up, though. As surfactants, sulfates are incredibly effective at grabbing the grime and oils on our skin and allowing them to be rinsed away with water. The catch is, sometimes they’re too good at cleansing and can strip essential moisture from the hair and scalp - the root cause of most issues related to sulfates.
The most common sulfates that you’ll see in hair care are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), but you’ll know if something is a sulfate if the last word in the ingredient name is sulfate - super easy to tell then, hey?
It’s also not an ingredient that appears in products, depending on their cost. A cheap sulfate free shampoo can be just as good or even better for you hair than a salon brand product that does!
What does sulfate do to your hair?
Sulfates in shampoo give us that super thick, luxurious foam that leaves our hair and scalp feeling squeaky clean, right? Here’s the deal - not everyone’s hair can handle sulfates. If your hair is prone to dryness, sulfates could make it feel even drier and even frizzier. If your hair is color-treated, it could rapidly wash out and fade any extra color, leaving your hair dull and boring.
If these are issues that you’re constantly dealing with, swapping out your usual hair care for a sulfate-free shampoo could be exactly what your hair needs. Have you checked your shampoo ingredients lists lately? When it comes to shampoo, sulfate free might be the way to go.
The number one claim by the best sulfate free shampoos is that they provide a gentler clean, and are therefore much better for your hair and scalp. Idk about you, but I’ve definitely tried a few shampoos without sulfates and found that they needed a lot more work to actually do anything - extra massaging and rubbing, trying to coax all the grime out of my hair before I run out of hot water.
On the other hand, this was a few years ago - as in, before shampoos formulated without sulfates were the mainstream, so I’m sure that formulas have improved since then!
Why sulfate is bad for your hair?
The truth is, sulfates aren’t bad for everybody’s hair. If you aren’t using a sulfate free shampoo at the moment but your scalp and hair are just fine, you should have no problemo with keeping these sudsy ingredients in your hair care routine. You might want to use a sulfate-free shampoo if:
Your scalp is sensitive, leaning dry
Your hair is color-treated
You have curly hair
You have dry/damaged hair
There's also a persistent myth that sulfates are cancer-causing ingredients when the truth is that there is no evidence to back that up - you can read a little more about that here. The source for this myth is actually hard to pin down, but it’s not hard to guess that it started with a little tiny kernel of misinformation about sulfates. I like this infographic for a simple breakdown on regular vs. SLS free shampoo:
What is a good sulfate free shampoo?
A good sulfate-free shampoo will genuinely not have any sulfates. Period.
I know what you’re thinking - duh, it shouldn’t have any because it’s a sulphate free shampoo, genius. The thing is, you’d be surprised how many shampoos sneak in sulfates (albeit gentler ones) under the guise of labelling the products as SLS-free, rather than free of all sulfates. Some of these supposedly gentler sulfates include ammonium laureth sulfate, sodium coco sulfate, to name a few. It's pretty easy to identify a sulfate though - can you see the pattern of the ingredients that I just mentioned? However, just because the ingredient ends with ‘-ate' doesn't mean it's a sulfate - there are a lot of surfactants out there with similar names but aren't actually sulfates. Your best bet is to always check ingredients lists!
There are also alternative ingredients that still give you super-satisfying suds without stripping your hair known as glucosides and betaines. Some of these include coco-betaine, cocamidopropyl betaine, decyl glucoside, cocamide, lauryl glucoside…
The short story is, there’s a lot of options out there for a sufficiently foamy, thorough shampoo that’s sulfate free! I’ve picked my six best sulphate free shampoo picks for every hair type out there.
There’s something for everyone:
1. Living Proof Full Shampoo
Perhaps one of the most difficult formulas to balance is creating a sulfate free volumizing shampoo. At the end of the day, volumizing and clarifying shampoos do have their place - but are they effective if they’re sulfate free?
It turns out, they totally are - Living Proof has cracked the code of creating a gentle clarifying shampoo without sulfates, and IMO it's probably the best sulfate free shampoo for fine hair on the market. You might be thinking,
“Wait, how do I know if I need clarifying shampoo?”
Don't worry, I've got the answers. Clarifying shampoos are designed to remove buildup that's sometimes caused by other ingredients like silicones and waxes and sometimes caused by the natural accumulation of scalp oils. If your hair is fine or thin, you're much more prone to buildup - so a clarifying, silicone free shampoo might be exactly what you need in your hair care routine.
When your hair is clean of anything weighing it down, that’s when you can get some real volume. This sulfate and paraben free shampoo from Living Proof perfectly balances a thorough, sudsy cleanse without stripping hair of moisture - and that gets two thumbs up from me.
2. Joico Color Endure Violet Shampoo & Conditioner
The fact is, if you’re (bleach) blond, your hair is always going to be a little bit compromised, and you’re faced with a whole lot of things that you need to consider when picking out a decent shampoo. Do you need it to be purple? What about a moisturizing shampoo? A no sulfate shampoo won’t be as stripping to hair, right?
Joico (also famous for their K-Pak line, unforch not SLS-free) has the answer. First off, it's a purple shampoo - designed to help calm down any brassy, yellowy tones that might be appearing in your hair. Purple is the opposite to yellow on the color wheel and is perfect for turning overly-golden strands back into the cooler blonde they were before.
That’s not even the best part - there’s no getting around the fact that bleached hair is damaged hair. Sulfates are legit the last thing you want to try putting on your hair day in, day out. This line is formulated completely free of sulfates, giving your hair the best chance of staying gorgeous, glossy, and blonde!
3. Reform Volume Shampoo & Conditioner
It's no secret that one of the most challenging aspects of finding a good sulfate free shampoo and conditioner, is finding products that work for fine hair. While fine hair can be prone to being over stripped, it's also prone to being weighed down if not washed properly.
That’s where this sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner set come in. Can I just say that the minimalist-style packaging is so nice to look at in the shower? However, ‘minimal' is hardly the word that I'd use to describe how well this combo works to volumize hair! It has an amazing silicone and sulfate free shampoo formula that's just unbeatable, IMO.
This body-building duo adds a serious boost to fullness and volume, perfect for anyone that's struggling with looking a little like Gollum, even on a good day. Btw, I'm not trying to roast all my flat-haired friends - even with all the hair I have on my head, sometimes it just lays flat and voilá! Smeagol!
Reform Beauty has formulated all of their products with a bespoke blend of Coconut, Argan, Maringa, and Camellia Oil to keep hair moisturized and silky. Camellia Oil is not super well-known outside of Japan, where it features in a lot of hair care products for its unique moisturizing abilities.
4. Skin Science ACV Shampoo & Conditioner
Okay, raise your hand if you’ve ever tried one of those Apple Cider Vinegar rinses. I mean, is there anyone that hasn’t?! It supposedly has a lot of benefits for hair, but it’s definitely not the most convenient treatment to do in the shower.
That's where this non sulfate shampoo & conditioner come in - both of them are proudly free of all the bad stuff (silicones, parabens, and sulfates) and loaded with everything your hair needs to stay healthy. This is a super gentle shampoo, yet it does have a clarifying detox formula to help rinse away the grime and build-up that's on your scalp - the same thing that you were probably using an ACV rinse for anyway.
That’s not even the best part - we all know that tell-tale, vinegar-slash-feet smell and don’t exactly what that lingering in our hair, right? This shampoo doesn’t even smell like vinegar when you use it! I don’t know what sorcery the formulating chemists used, but this shampoo smells amazing. It’s one of the best sulfate free shampoo and conditioner deals that you can get online for sure - no awkward ACV rinses necessary!
5. Olaplex No.5 Conditioner
Is any post about hair care complete without mentioning Olaplex?
Seriously, it’s the Rolls Royce of hair care - and probably the best sulfate free conditioner that you can buy, in my humble, hair-health enthusiast opinion.
After the runaway success of Olaplex No.3 (clearly evidenced by all the ‘-plex’ copycats that popped up in its wake), Olaplex has new offerings in the form of shampoo & conditioner to complement the first three steps in the range. Unlike No.3 - which is strictly a bond-builder, FYI, not a moisturizing mask - No.5 is a sulfate-free conditioner that both repairs and moisturizes hair. It’s designed to complement the entire Olaplex system, obvi, but is also a great way to get that Olaplex fix at home without shelling out for No. 3 all the time.
The formula is proudly sulfate and paraben-free and reinforced with Panthenol, Argan Oil and Green Tea Seed Oil to smooth down hair for unbeatable gloss and shine. Olaplex No. 5 also works to re-link hair bonds for strengthened, glossy hair, just like No. 3 so you can get that super shiny, just-went-to-the-salon look right at home.
6. Grace & Stella Argan Oil Shampoo + Conditioner
Okay, so this is another great option for us gals that love Instagram-aesthetic products! Who doesn’t love semi-punny catchphrases on shampoo bottles? Apart from that, something that I really like about this paraben and sulfate free shampoo and conditioner combo from Grace & Stella is the smell. I know I go on about it a lot, but it’s just one of those things that can ruin your experience using a product, no matter how amazing it is.
The aroma is pretty unisex and neutral, almost like shaving cream but not quite. A great option for those of us that live with a man who needs to wash his hair, but doesn't want to smell like an Herbal Essences ad! That's not even the best part - the formula for both of these products exclude additives like extra fragrance and color, making it perfect for those who are sensitive to super-strong added smells and brightly colored shampoos.
That aside, this is a really great ‘starter kit' option for someone wanting to make their first foray into the sulfate-free world. This super simple duo cater to everyone without hesitation.
It’s designed to be perfect for all hair types - even for curly and dyed hair, which are some of the hardest hair types to cater for. Skipping out on sulfates makes that easier, though; curls lose their definition and colors fade because of the super-stripping powers of sulfates.
7. Biolage R.A.W. Nourish Shampoo
Not only is this shampoo free of sulphates and parabens, but it's also incredibly environmentally friendly - talk about having your cake and eating it too! The ‘R.A.W.' in the title stands for Real, Authentic, and Wholesome, and that's exactly what this shampoo is.
One of the things that I like the most about this paraben free shampoo is that it literally looks and smells like honey. It smells so much like the real deal that it’s hard not to wanna taste it! (Seriously, don’t. It might be mostly natural but it doesn’t taste anything like honey!)
Honey is a superstar hair care ingredient because it’s a natural humectant - that is, something that helps to hold moisture to the hair and skin. That’s not the only amazing natural ingredient in this shampoo though!
It also contains quinoa, which is supposed to be amazing for helping to boost hair growth and strengthen hair. Quinoa naturally contains a whole slew of amino acids that are supposed to be perfect for restoring and rejuvenating hair.
The Nourish line from Biolage is formulated specifically for dry hair, providing moisture without making hair look limp and lank - I would say that this shampoo for sure fits the bill, and smells amazing to boot!
8. Oribe Gold Lust Repair & Restore Conditioner
First things first - there is just something that I adore about the Oribe packaging. It’s super timeless and if I’m honest, the perfect aesthetic for the ‘gram. Plus, if Oribe’s good enough for Nam Vo, it’s good enough for me! Regardless of how something looks, I’m not going to recommend it if it doesn’t work - so does this offering from Oribe live up to the hype?
The Oribe Gold Lust Repair & Restore Conditioner (whew, what a mouthful) gives you the Midas touch, that is if the Midas Touch meant that every single hair you touched was instantly shining with health.
Seriously though - this conditioner is paraben and sulfate-free, yet packed with super-nourishing plant oils to smooth down the hair cuticle from root to tip.
That’s not even the best part - I love the super-bougie suggestion on the bottle that says to massage, and then indulge (for at least a minute). What’s not to love? Paired with the matching and equally bougie sulfate free moisturizing shampoo, your hair is going to look the best it ever has - I promise ya!
But, what’s the best shampoo without sulfates?
It’s no secret that I can’t turn down a good deal - so for me, the best choice of sulfate free shampoo (and conditioner) is the Grace & Stella set. I really like that their formula works for all hair types and is actually free of sulfates, silicones and parabens - they’re so well formulated that you wouldn’t even know that they’re technically sulfate free!
They’re also the only product on the list that doesn’t add fragrance or color. Aside from sulfates, additives like these are some of the top culprits for scalp irritation and itching - so that’s another thing that can be eliminated as a possible cause of hair issues when swapping to sulfate free hair products. I’m also a sucker for gender-neutral scents - sometimes I don’t wanna smell like an Herbal Essences ad campaign either!
At the end of the day, there are many sulphate free options out there for literally everybody - there's no reason that you shouldn't be having a good hair day, every day. So, here's to good hair days ahead!
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About the author Stephanie Morin
NYC-based beauty and skin care blogger, Stephanie delivers a healthy dose of practical beauty tips for some serious skin care inspiration!