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What is Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

Finding the perfect shampoo for your personal hair, scalp and lifestyle needs can be a tricky process: it’s great to have so many options to choose from (Color care? Anti-frizz? Old school L'Oreal?) but it can also be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. But even if you consider yourself a haircare novice, you’re probably familiar with parabens and sulfates, and why you should try to avoid shampoos that contain them.

What are sulfates?

Sulfates are cleansing and foaming surfactants that were traditionally added to shampoo, conditioner and even laundry detergents. The most common sulfates you’ll find in shampoos are usually sodium laureth sulfate or sodium lauryl sulfate, which is something to look out for and be aware of when shopping for new personal care products. Since they attract both oil and water, they’re useful cleansers when it comes to removing buildup, dirt and oil from your hair and scalp through a lathering effect.

Reasons to go sulfate-free

While not technically dangerous to use, there are a few reasons why you might want to consider switching to a sulfate-free shampoo instead of one you’re using now.

  • They can over-cleanse. Sulfates are mainly added to hair care products to cleanse and deep clean, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Your hair and scalp need the right balance of natural oils to promote hair growth, nourishment, and overall health, and sulfates can over-wash your hair and strip it of the oils it needs. Over-washing your hair with sulfate shampoo can result in hair loss, dryness, frizziness, loss of shine, and even over-production of oil in some cases as your scalp tries to balance out the nourishment loss.
  • They can increase scalp irritation. Since we already know that sulfates can over-strip your hair of essential oils and moisture, this normally leaves your scalp at a higher risk for becoming dry and irritated. And those who already deal with scalp sensitivity are more likely to experience this unwanted side effect.
  • They can strip protein from your hair. This potential damaging and weakening of the hair from shampoo that contains sulfates can also mean damaging the protein in hair. Each hair fiber is made up of about 90% protein, and protein loss has a huge effect on overall hair health. One study showed that hair exposed to a certain kind of sulfate (sodium dodecyl) was twice as likely to cause protein loss when compared to hair just immersed in water. So while it’s not sulfates as a whole, it’s a good idea to try and avoid them to increase your odds of better hair health.

Davines sulfate free shampoo alternatives

Sulfate-free shampoo alternatives

Save yourself the stress of digging around — there are so many great sulfate-free shampoo alternatives for you to try, and even ones specifically formulated to improve the look, feel and overall hair health of many different hair types. And for additional information on different types of shampoo, be sure to check out our previous blog post.

For curly hair

Anyone with curly hair knows that you need a curated hair care regimen (and a lot of extra moisture) to keep your curls looking bouncy, healthy and defined. Since sulfates can strip the hair of essential moisture, they’re definitely not recommended for anyone looking for hair products for curls. Try a sulfate-free curl shampoo instead — this will gently cleanse your hair without over-stripping, as well as softening, enhancing volume, and helping to add some healthy definition to your waves or ringlets.

For dry or dehydrated hair

If you have dry hair, you need sulfate-free moisturizing hair products that will restore what your hair needs to be shiny and healthy. For general everyday use, try a light gel moisturizing shampoo that gently cleanses while adding key hydration to your hair. If you’re noticing excessive dryness that’s led to brittle strands and breakage, you should consider using a nourishing shampoo instead. While it will still gently cleanse your hair and scalp, it also has the added benefit of being rich in polyphenols and antioxidants to nourish and restore optimal health to your hair and scalp.

For oily hair

One of the main problems with having excessively oily hair is that the temptation to over-wash it (and get rid of the oil) usually ends up in your scalp overcompensating for the loss and producing even more oil. That’s why you’ll need a sulfate-free shampoo for oily hair: while it will remove excess oil from your hair and scalp, it will also help to rebalance oil levels and leave you with enough to maintain healthy hair.

Davines Essential Haircare shampoo

For sensitive scalps

Sulfates can cause excessive irritation and excessive dryness, and that problem can be made worse if you already have a sensitive or easily-irritated scalp. If you have a noticeably sensitive scalp, try a calming shampoo. This particular formula includes phytoceuticals extracted from blueberries, which are rich in polyphenols and sugar with a high anti-inflammatory power. This way you’ll be able to get clean, healthy hair every time you wash it, without the unwanted side effects of irritating your hair further. As a note: if you’re still dealing with scalp issues after trying this, it could be caused by another underlying issue, and we’d recommend meeting with a dermatologist to try and diagnose it.

For fine or thin hair

When looking for products for fine or thin hair, first you’ll want to find a sulfate-free volumizing shampoo. With a light yet still foamy formula, you’ll cleanse your strands while also helping to boost body and volume from root to ends. But if you’re also noticing that your hair is thinning, try an energizing shampoo formulated for fragile or thinning hair instead. Formulated with stimulating ingredients, this shampoo will help encourage a healthier scalp environment to promote hair regrowth and overall well-being.

For all hair types

If you don’t have any specific hair or scalp concerns, or are just looking for a simple daily go-to sulfate-free shampoo, here are a few great recommendations. First is our first 100% carbon-neutral shampoo, A Single Shampoo. 98.2% biodegradable and made with 95% natural-origin ingredients, this shampoo will gently cleanse your hair and scalp while offering a mild elasticizing and hydrating action. If you’re looking for a little more of a moisturizing shampoo for all hair types, there’s OI. Formulated with Roucou oil, this shampoo is sulfate-free and will add a rich dose of nourishment and care for your hair. Since those with no specific hair or scalp concerns basically have full freedom to test out and find what works for them, be sure to check out our full list of sulfate-free shampoo to pick your favorite.

General hair care tips

With all the talk of sulfates in hair care products, it can be confusing figuring out solutions that will leave you with clean, healthy hair without over-stripping it. So we hope that the above suggestions are a solid starting point for you to try out — but finding the right shampoo is only the beginning of a healthy hair care journey! Try to find a conditioner that will also help you achieve your hair goals: whether that’s defined curls, added volume, extra moisture or just daily health maintenance. If you can’t let your hair air dry (a great way to decrease damage from heat styling products), remember to always use a heat protectant spray any time you’re going to use a blow dryer or hot styling tool.


Once you’ve gotten your hair and scalp to a healthy state, consider investing in a silk or satin pillowcase to maintain its look. These offer less friction on your head than traditional cotton pillowcases, meaning less breakage or frizziness when you wake up the next day. And since spring is right around the corner and the temperatures will (hopefully soon) start increasing, be sure to check out our list of summer beauty essentials to make sure you’re prepared to care for your hair, scalp and body when the seasons change. And if you have any additional information on sulfate-free shampoo that you’ve found useful (or any myths to dispel) let us know in the comments below!

By Lauren Hannel, staff contributor

cover photo by @goldandglowco

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1 Comment

1 Response

Lorraine Breaux
Lorraine Breaux

March 20, 2021

Hey hi 👋
Wanting to try travel sizes of several products and I’m not quite sure how to go about it ?? When I go to the products that have travel sizes, there is no place to select it ?? Need help…🧐. Thanks much🙏🏻❤️

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