Nondescript Shampoo Bottles

Is your Sulfate-Free Shampoo Really Sulfate-Free?

In recent years, “sulfate-free” has become increasingly common on the label of every new shampoo and conditioner. The term has become associated with being “healthier” and “organic” even when that is not the case. Sodium laurel sulfate is a harsh surfactant, found in household cleaning products and even in tooth paste. Sodium laurel sulfate is also a suspected carcinogen which is why consumers seek alternatives. However, not all companies making sulfate-free shampoos are truly free of sulfate compounds or derivatives.

The Chemistry of Sulfate-Free Shampoo

Chemistry is a defined science. When you change one element of a formula or ingredient, you change the composition. This in turn, changes the ingredient. For example, Sodium laurel sulfate becomes sodium laurel sulfonate, simply by changing an O to an X in the ingredient design. Voila! The product is now sulfate-free. Or so they claim…

Marketers love these slight variations that allow them to glamorize a healthier point of difference in their products. This gives the consumer the impression that the product is safer, healthier, and cleaner. We call this “word smithing” or “greenwashing.” In reality, these new surfactants, although gentler, are sulfate compounds.

What most consumers don’t know is that these companies are choosing chemicals that are often stronger and harsher than sulfates. These substitutes include cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, PEG, propylene glycol, cocamidopropyl betaine or hydroxysultaine.

How Do I Find Sulfate-Free Products?

In common terms, these new generation of surfactants acts as a cousin to their original counter parts. The good news is that truly sulfate-free hair products are out there! True sulfate-free shampoos derive from gentler, plant-extracts. They use amino acids, seed oils, such as palm or coconut oil, and possess numerous advantages over their chemically manufactured counterparts.

Look for products that contain many of the following ingredients:

  • Gulcosides – Ecocert approved, they come from renewable, plant-derived raw materials. Examples are vegetable oils and starch. Lauryl glucoside, a surfactant made from coconut oil and sugar, is one of the gentlest cleaners on the market. Because it is naturally derived, lauryl glucosides facilitate effective cleansing with a reduced potential for irritation.
  • Taurates and Fatty Acid Isethionates – Derived from the coconut fatty acid. They have an excellent cleansing ability and hair conditioning effect. Also, they are exceptionally mild for the hair, skin and eyes.
  • Glutamates – Amino acid based surfactants often find themselves in certified organic products. Hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic, glutamates are also known for being one of the mildest active agents on the market.
  • Amino Acid Sulfosuccinates – These have mild and anti-irritant properties. Surfactants are especially suitable for products made for delicate skin and baby shampoos due to their super gentle nature.

Stay away from products that claim to be sulfate-free but contain the following ingredients:

  • Cocamide DEA
  • Cocamide MEA
  • PEG’s, PEG8
  • Propylene Glycol
  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine
  • Hydroxysultain

And, a great resource to help you shop clean:  the Think Dirty app.

12 Comments

  • Greg says:

    Thank you for your question. Hydroxysultaine is a sulfate free surfactant derived from fatty lipids from coconut. It is considered gentle. Regarding your earlier questions you need to look at all the ingredients as a whole to determine how good a product will perform on you hair. Over the counter products tend to be heavy in water, along with using thickeners and synthetics to improve performance. If you are making the investment in Keratin, we recommend using clean quality products. Thank you

  • Sissy Franck says:

    So, exactly what is a sulphate? From what is it derived?

    • Innersense Tribe says:

      Hi Sissy! A sulphate is an inorganic salt that is naturally derived from inorganic minerals, most commonly known as Epson Salt. We use this ingredient as an emulsifier. In our conditioner it soothes the cuticle. A note, sulphate is often confused with sulfates found in shampoos.

  • Pia Benvenutto says:

    Thank you Innersense. I’d been meaning to take a closer look at my shampoo and sure enough it contains every ingredient you list – the one’s to avoid and the one’s that are harsher than the sulfates! Too bad Earth Science products. You just lost a customer.

  • Eileen Aponte says:

    I am with Pia. I just checked my bottles of shampoo (I have all three) after having my scalp break out. They sure enough contain all the harsh ingredients you are blacklisting, including Hydroxysultaine. For a company promoting well being and clean ingredients, you are seriously misleading consumers. I’ll be throwing all your products out and will never support your company again. Hopefully more people will notice and you’ll have to own up for lying to consumers.

    • Innersense Tribe says:

      Eileen, thank you for being an avid reader of product labels, as we are also passionate about ingredients. Because there can be confusion with ingredients, there is a difference between Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, which differs from Hydroxysultaine. In our Hydrating Cream Hairbath we use Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, which is a non- ethoxylated, gentle surfactant derived from coconut.

      We’d love for you to consult the Think Dirty app when looking for haircare products! All of our hairbaths and conditioners rate zero on Think Dirty and are put through rigorous third-party testing.

      We’re sorry to learn about your skin reaction. On occasion, natural citruses and oils can cause skin reactions depending on the season they are harvested. Feel free to reach out to us at info@innersensebeauty.com and we’ll happily offer you a product of your choice. We appreciate your thirst for knowledge!

  • megan says:

    so what actually some shampoos that are sulfate free? i see these bad ingredients in almost every “sulfate free” advertised shampoo

    • Innersense Tribe says:

      Hi Megan,

      Many shampoos out there in the market place have sulfates hidden in their formulas. It’s important to know what to look for when reading ingredients. Feel free to check out our Ingredients page to read more about the ingredients we never use. We provide brief explanations of what “dirty” ingredients like sulfates are and what they do to hair.

  • Crystal C says:

    What would be helpful is listing a couple of products that are truly sulfate free I just checked every bottle at Target and couldn’t find anything that didn’t include your avoid list ingredients.

    I’m now really lost.

    • Innersense Tribe says:

      Hi Crystal,

      Thanks for reaching out! We aren’t quite sure by your comment if you are hoping for a list of product sold at Target that are free of sulfates? If so, we couldn’t provide that for you as we are not aware of Target’s inventory, but also we rather you become a part of our community of haircare. If it is a worry of price of our products, we understand the hesitation, but can assure you that because our products are richly concentrated you don’t have to use a lot per use. We recommend only using, per use, dime to nickel size amounts or 1-2 pumps or a few spritzes. With richly concentrated products, you don’t have to use a ton for them to work, because they aren’t water down. In fact, most haircare products contain 70% water our products only contain around 45% water. If you’re using the recommended amounts per application, you should get about 1 month per ounce. This means a 10oz bottle can last you as long as 10 months. Your $ really carries you with our line and we hope this provides you with confidence in switching to Innersense Organic Beauty.

      Thank You!

      • Crystal C says:

        Thank you, I stumbled across this article I didn’t know you all sold haircare. I was hoping for any product recommendation that was truly sulfate-free not just what is available at Target thanks for the info I will look into what you all offer.

        • Innersense Tribe says:

          Hi Crystal,

          Thanks for reaching out! We can assure you that we are truly sulfate free and we go way beyond that. For product recommendations we encourage you to check out our hair ceremony recommendation form on our home page, but if you’re looking for a more one-on-one consultation we’re happy to chat with you! We’re available M-F 8:30 am – 5:00 pm PST at 1-877-254-7385.

          Thank You!

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