If you've read this column long enough, you know that I am an advocate for beauty products that leave out harsh ingredients, and in the world of mainstream beauty products, sulfates are some of the harshest ingredients you'll find.
Not everyone will react negatively to sulfates, but I think most people will find they are worth avoiding. Sulfates occur in products mainly under the name sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). You'll find sulfates in products like toothpaste, shampoo, mouthwash, facial cleansers and detergent, and they are responsible for creating a rich and bubbly lather. They are great thickening agents, and they are also great at dissolving oil and dirt. The sulfates in shampoos are what cause the sting when you get some in your eyes, which is why it's especially best to avoid sulfates in baby products.
Sodium laureth sulfate has a different chemical structure than sodium lauryl sulfate and is definitely a better choice than sodium lauryl sulfate because it is a gentler cleansing agent. With that said, here's the scoop on SLS: it works by denaturing proteins in your skin and hair, thus stripping any oil that may be found. This is why SLS products are so drying, they strip your hair and your skin of natural and essential oils. Especially for people who have dry hair or skin, SLS-free products are definitely beneficial. Additionally, SLS will strip your hair of any color you may have paid for at a salon.
For some people, sulfate products are no big deal, but for others, sulfate use can cause a whole list of problems including headaches, hives, lethargy, water retention and puffiness and even flu-like symptoms. These symptoms are often associated with sulfite intolerance, and you may need to seek the advice of a qualified allergist if you feel you may be experiencing such symptoms. Sulfites can also be present in foods, which is why some people with sulfite intolerance require an entire lifestyle change to manage their symptoms.
A while back, there were rumors that sulfates are even carcinogenic. The American Cancer Society has refuted that claim, but for me, the jury is still out. Like I always say, if someone would have told the world 60 years ago that smoking causes cancer, most people would not have believed it. I have found some research which suggests that SLS is sometimes contaminated with a substance called dioxane, which has been found to be carcinogenic. Of course, in most products containing sulfates, the concentrations are minimal, which is why you often find sulfates on the bottom of the ingredients list.
Yet, if you are concerned about the potential effects of sulfates, considering trying products with glycerine or glucosides, which come from corn and sugar and will provide a lathering effect without the harshness.
Here's a list of some alternative products:
Sulfer soap - Because I am prone to breakouts, I use sulfur facial cleansing soap. It's natural, contains no harsh chemicals and is wonderful for preventing breakouts.
Terralina cleansers - Terralina creates paraben-free and sulfate-free facial cleansers that I hear good things about. They are a little pricey, but most sulfate free products are a little more pricey than the norm.
Aubrey Organics - You may have to experiment with their products, because I'm not so fond of their cosmetics, but their products are void of sulfates and are for the most part great products. Their organic certification can be misleading, and even some of their "all-natural" ingredients can be irritating to some, but you can get rid of practically every single sulfate product you may have in your home and replace it with one of Aubrey Organics products. Also a plus, they list their ingredients on the web site.
Natural Toothpaste - This tooth gel is considered organic and vegetarian and utilizes ingredients like baking soda and peppermint.
Whole Foods.com - This is an excellent online market where you can find anything you'll need to switch to a sulfite-free diet.