- Sulfates are detergents that help attract oil and water, which helps to clear out grime.
- Frequent use of products with sulfates can cause dryness, redness, or irritation.
- There is no conclusive research that shows sulfates are carcinogenic.
Walk down any aisle with personal-care products (shampoos, conditioners, face washes, body washes), and you’re bound to see the label “sulfate-free.”
Even if you’ve seen the term often, you may not know what sulfates are. “Sulfates are detergents – also called surfactants – that are found in many common beauty products,” Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, a dermatologist in New York, told INSIDER. “Think of them as the ingredients that cause the ‘soapy’ appearance in products. They also help remove dirt and debris.”
If you’re someone who loves feeling squeaky clean, you’re probably using products with sulfates in them. They help attract oil and water, which helps to clear out grime, Dr. Marisa Garshick, a dermatologist in New York told INSIDER. “Sulfates can help give products a lathering or foaming effect and help to lift dirt and debris to help leave the hair or skin feeling clean,” she told INSIDER.
All that cleaning can come at a cost, Bhanusali said
“Generally, some people can have irritation to common sulfates and get redness or dryness of the skin, especially with regular contact,” he said. Garshick agreed, stating that sulfates can be too harsh for certain people – especially those with sensitive skin.
But apart from their heavy-duty cleaning, are sulfates really that bad for you? Not really, Bhanusali said.
“There was original belief way back in the ’90s was that certain types of sulfates can be carcinogenic,” he said. “While every product can come with side effects, subsequent research has not demonstrated any increased risk for cancer and they are no longer believed to be risky.”
Garshick added that the amount of sulfates plays a role in safety, too. “Many personal-care products have a low concentration of sulfates in their formulation, so it is unlikely there is enough exposure to cause significant harm,” she said.
The consensus? Sulfates are harsh on your skin and hair, but they aren’t horrible for you
Garshick said to avoid products with sulfates if you have sensitive skin, are prone to irritation, or have dry hair.
If you choose to use products with sulfates, Bhanusali said it’s to listen to your skin. “If feeling like it’s too harsh, look for gentler products or rinse out quicker than you usually would,” he said. So, no, sulfates are not absolutely terrible for you. But if you don’t want to use them, switch to sulfate-free products. “Just don’t be alarmed if they aren’t as soapy as you’re used to,” Bhanusali said.
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