Sulfates and sulfate-free shampoo – everything you need to know!

Sulfates and sulfate-free shampoo – everything you need to know!

Dec 01, 2022ChenYuhang

We get asked all the time if our solid shampoo bars are sulfate-free — and whether they're actually any good.  

We decided to get to the bottom of it once and for all and wrote this blog to talk you through the science of sulfates and sulfate-free shampoos so you can decide for yourself if sulfate-free shampoo is right for you or not.  

What are sulfates?

And are sulfates bad?  

Sulfates are a type of surfactant, the ingredient included in products that creates lots of delicious lather or binds water and oil together.  Oooh look, a surfactant molecule. Let’s explore how a surfactant molecule cleans hair. 

There are many different types of surfactants, and they're used for a lot more than just cleaning your hair.  

In fact, surfactants are in a lot of household cleaning products, including soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, hand cleaners, dishwashing liquids… you get the idea! 

Some sulfates can also be found in industrial and degreasing products.  

Our point? Sulfates are a huge group of chemicals (chemicals aren’t bad for you – you are made up of chemicals) and some are better for your hair and skin (and the planet) than others. 

For example, you might be familiar with sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLeS) which are the two most (in)famous sulfates, but they are not the only ones. These sulfates are often derived from palm oil.

Are sulfates bad for your hair?

Are all sulfates drying, irritating, strip colour and keratin? There is no scientific evidence to support this. None whatsoever. And yes, there absolutely have been studies trying to find out if this is the case. In fact, the opposite is often the case. 

One common misconception is that if a shampoo has sulfates in it, that it will be harsh—but it is impossible to determine by one ingredient, whether that product will be harsh on you or not. What makes a surfactant harsh or not, is not the sulfur group, it is the size and structure of the molecule overall. 

Does Ethique use sulfates?

Yes, we do. The sulfates we use in our shampoo and body wash bars come from coconut, not palm oil 

We use sodium coco sulfate in most of our shampoo bars which produce lots of fluffy lather, but is gentle enough to use in baby shampoos. 

Tip: Some sodium coco sulfate can come from palm oil, so just be sure to ask for clarification of the ingredient source if you are not sure. Ours are certified palm oil free. 

We’ve also formulated our shampoo bars with a lot of care.  

The golden rule when formulating foaming products is to combine surfactants for a gentler product. One surfactant creates a harsher product, two is gentler and three is better still (and we always have three).  

Combining surfactants alters the way they form micelles in solution resulting in an efficient cleanse with lots of delicious foam, but without drying and irritation. That is how much nicer hair products use sulfates. They’re also often used in lower concentrations, alongside secondary and tertiary surfactants, proteins and silicones and the shampoos are usually less drying. 

Can sulfates cause itchy scalps?

Our scalps are all individually sensitive to a wide range of things including hair care products, environmental changes, medication, lifestyle, and stress. 

It is impossible to know which individual ingredient in an entire formulation is responsible for causing an itchy scalp reaction.  

We recommend patch testing anything before using any product all over. Flaky scalps and dandruff may be an indication of another issue altogether and a medicated shampoo might be the right solution for that. 

Have you tried our Heali Kiwi solid shampoo bar which is best for dry or itchy scalps? 

Can sulfates cause hair loss? 

Hair loss is a major concern but very seldom is it an external issue, unless it is referring to chemical or mechanical breakage.  

The main cause of hair loss is usually hormonal changes. Hair loss is cyclical, and we all go through periods of it so the hair loss you might be experiencing could very well be a coincidence as well. 

It is unlikely that a sulfate-free shampoo or a shampoo product with sulfates could have any effect on your natural hair cycle.  

Our solid shampoo bars and their ingredients have been well tested to not cause breakage or hair loss.  

What makes Ethique’s sulfate-free shampoo bars ‘lather’?

Remember our surfactant rule about three’s? We use a combination of sodium cocoyl glycinate to go alongside our favourite, sodium cocoyl isethionate, and a sugar derivative cocoyl methyl glucamide in our sulfate-free solid shampoo bars.  

We’ve worked hard to ensure they produce the same after-feel as our shampoo bars that contain sulfates and most importantly, still give you lots of lather! 

Does Ethique make sulfate-free solid shampoo bars?

Absolutely! Why? Because our customers have requested them 😊 

We now have an entire sulfate-free range. Like all of our shampoo bars, they contain no silicones, are all safe for colour treated hair, are soap-free and pH balanced. 

Which Ethique sulfate-free solid shampoo bar is best for your hair? 

The Wombar shampoo bar is great for balanced hair and scalp with ingredients like lavender and eucalyptus and sugar beets for the happiest of locks.  

$1AUD from the sales of each bar goes to The Irwin’s Wildlife Warriors foundation. 

Professor Curl is a sulfate-free shampoo bar made specifically for curly, coily and wavy hair. It’s also formulated in line with curl care principles. 

Bar Minimum is a brilliant sulfate-free solid shampoo bar that is unscented and perfect for those who are sensitive to essential oils or prefer an unscented option.  

Tone it Down is the ultimate sulfate-free purple toning shampoo bar that is perfect for banishing brassiness in blonde, grey and warm brunette shades.  

Tip-to-Tot is the sulfate-free shampoo bar option that is great for kids who need a product that can be used on hair and body. 

If you’ve never tried an Ethique shampoo bar before, we recommend trying one of our minis or Discovery Packs first.  

Sulfate-free shampoo bar FAQ’s

How do you use a sulfate-free solid shampoo bar?

Because sulfate-free shampoo bars have smaller bubbles (not less) and a harder bar in general, we recommend using your shampoo bar with these easy steps:  

Step 1: Swipe the shampoo bar directly onto wet hair (not your hands). Put the bar down. 
Step 2: Massage the scalp to work up a creamy lather and run the product through the rest of your hair. 
Step 3: Rinse and follow with conditioner if needed. 


Pro tip: If you have oily hair, we recommend washing twice. 

How do you store a sulfate-free solid shampoo bar?

It’s super easy. All you have to do is store your bars away from pools of water and make sure that the bars dry properly between each use. 

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