The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoos (and Why You Need One)

The kinder, gentler way to wash your hair.
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Michelle Villett
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The kinder, gentler way to wash your hair.

Being a beauty editor means you try just about everything that crosses your desk, and for years, I did just that with shampoo. 

Because shampoo is shampoo, right? 

Nah. I've realized now that there's a big difference between regular shampoo and sulfate-free shampoo, which I've been using exclusively for almost a year now. (On my face, I've been avoiding sulfates for even longer.) 

If you ask me, sulfate-free is definitely the way to go. So if you're still using sulfates on your hair, maybe I can convert you with this post! I'm also going to explain HOW to make sulfate-free shampoo work for you—because admittedly, it is a bit of an art form. 

But first things first...

Why Avoid Sulfates?

How to use sulfate-free shampoo

Should you be avoiding sulfate shampoo? (Photo: Clean Wal-Mart)

Sulfates are detergents—cleaning and foaming agents—that are found in most rinse-off products such as shampoos and skin cleansers. You'll see them identified on labels as sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate or ammonium lauryl sulfate; sometimes, they're referred to as "SLS" and/or "ALS" for short.

Sulfates are considered safe when used briefly, followed by thoroughly rinsing the skin they touched. 

Still, for a great many people, even that short contact is too harsh, leading to...

Scalp irritation: Sulfates are known skin irritants. As detergents, they remove oil so effectively that they can actually strip your scalp's outermost protective layer. With a compromised barrier function, it's very easy for harmful bacteria to get in and needed moisture to get out. As a result your scalp can develop sensitivity, dryness, redness and itching.

Acne: As if the irritation wasn't bad enough, many people also report getting acne on the scalp and around the hairline! I'm not entirely sure of the mechanism here—it could be from bacteria getting in, or from the harshness of the sulfates causing rebound oil production. I've also read that sulfates can leave behind a film on your scalp that clogs your pores (although don't quote me on that). 

I think this happened to me recently because within a day of getting my hair washed at the salon, I developed more than a dozen painful pimples on my scalp (and even a few on my neck) that took more than a week to go away. Since they used a regular light shampoo and a vinegar rinse, no conditioner, I suspect sulfates might be to blame (and possibly too-rich conditioning agents as well, although they do always use volumizing shampoos on me). At any rate, I'll be bringing along my own shampoo next time!

How to use sulfate-free shampoo

Sulfate shampoos can lead to dryness, irritation and colour fading. (Photo: SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget)

Dry hair: Remember we talked about the Mason Pearson brush and how it distributes your natural scalp oils from roots to tips, making your hair look and feel healthy and glossy? Well, that's not happening so much when you use a sulfate-laden shampoo. The SLS gets rid of oil so well that your lengths can end up lacking moisture and shine. This can be especially problematic for those with dry or curly hair, or people prone to tangling, flyaways and split ends. (Dry hair splits faster.)

By the way, ever since I switched to using sulfate-free products (from World), the woman who usually washes my hair at the salon has started commenting that my hair feels better—softer and smoother—and that it looks thicker. Coincidence? I think not!!!

Colour fade: I'm sure you've heard this one before. Sulfates are widely suspected to speed the fading of hair dye, because they are so stripping. 

Hair loss (maybe): Finally, some people have pointed the finger at sulfates for contributing to hair loss, thinning and shedding—indirectly, by causing inflammation of the scalp. The jury's still out on that, but I say, it's MUCH better to be safe than sorry. If you're having this problem and alternatives exist, why wouldn't you use them?!

Here's the bottom line. Sulfates are so prevalent in everything for the same reason you see my other least favourite cosmetic ingredient, petroleum, everywhere. They're cheap, cheap, cheap! Sadly, beauty companies don't care about your skin health as much as they care about their profits...

Fortunately, there are a number of very good sulfate-free options on the market now, that work better than ever.

How To Choose a Sulfate-Free Shampoo

Many sulfate-free shampoo ingredients are derived from coconut oil and fruit sugars, and will give you a safe, gentle clean. Below are some names you'll see on labels (GoodGuide is a great place to look up products that contain them!).

  • Coco glucoside 
  • Lauryl glucoside
  • Decyl glucoside
  • Caprylyl capryl glucoside
  • Sodium cocoyl glutamate
  • Disodium cocoyl glutamate
  • Sodium cocoamphoacetate
  • Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate
  • Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate
  • Sodium methyl oleoyl taurate
  • Sodium cocoyl isethionate
  • Ammonium cocoyl isethionate
  • Sodium lauryl glucose carboxylate
  • Sodium lauroyl lactylate
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine* 

* This seems to be the most common sulfate-free surfactant, however, my understanding is that it's also the most harsh. Best for people with oily hair who don't have sensitivities.

On to my top picks!

World Clean Hair & Skin Cleanser

World Clean Hair & Skin Cleanser is my absolute favourite shampoo, created by hairstylist Brian Phillips, Toronto-based celebrity hairstylist and owner of World Salon. It is a salon-quality shampoo that works on all hair types. It's light yet non-drying, easy to spread and leaves your hair feeling amazingly clean and bouncy. Can't live without it!

Ingredients: Water, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Sodium Cocamphoacetate, Alkyl Polyglucoside, Glycerin, Glyceryl, Oleate, Xanthan Gum, Retinal Palmitate (Vitamin A), Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Ergocalcliferol (Vitamin D), Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Panthenol (Vitamin B5), Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Cucuminis Sativas (Cucumber) Extract, Hedera Helix (Ivy Root) Extract, Artium Lappa (Burdock) Extract, Calendula Officinalis (Calendula) Flower.

Where to buy: Well.ca, World.ca

Nature Clean Pure-Sensitive Shampoo

Nature Clean Pure-Sensitive Shampoo is the ideal shampoo for people with sensitivities to perfume and other common shampoo ingredients. I've been using Nature Clean Pure-Body Shampoo and it's also a very decent sulfate-free shampoo for the price (and easy to spread).

Ingredients: Water/Eau/Aqua, Cocoglucoside, Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate, Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside, Glycerin, Xanthan Gum, Sapindus Mukurossi Peel Extract, Chondrus Chrispus (Carageenan), Citric Acid, Beta-Glucan, Bisabolol, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate.

Where to buy: Well.ca

Yarok Feed Your Volume Shampoo

Yarok Feed Your Volume Shampoo takes a little more work to coat your scalp, but it's oh-so-heavenly with its mix of fragrant essential oils (just be cautious if you colour, as they may affect fading). From memory, this one is more nourishing/softening... so it's best for normal, not-too-oily hair. There's also a moisturizing version.

Ingredients: purified aqua (water), decyl glucoside, lauryl glucoside, Coco Coco Protein, Ascophyllum (seaweed) extract, herbal infusions of: Tussilago farfara (coltsfoot), Stellaria media (chickweed), Urtica dioica (nettles), Equisetum arvense (horsetail), Ulmus fulva (Slippery Elm), Althaea officinalis (marshmallow root), Symphytum officinale (comfrey root), Calendula officinalis (marigold) blossoms, Chamaemelum nobile (chamomile) flowers & Avena sativa (oatstraw) kernel; Hippophae rhamnoides (sea buckthorn) C02, Essential oils of: Lavandula angustifolia (lavender), Cedrus atlantica (atlas cedar), Citrus reticulata (red mandarin), Citrus Sinensis (sweet orange) oil & Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary); Citrus × paradisi (grapefruit) seed extract

Where to buy: Amazon.com, Spirit Beauty Lounge, The Detox Market

John Masters Organics Evening Primrose Shampoo for Dry Hair

John Masters Organics Evening Primrose Shampoo for Dry Hair is a cult favourite and first sulfate-free shampoo I ever tried. It doesn't lather, so you do have to take your time getting it onto your scalp to ensure it is doing the job. The scent is amazing, it's colour-safe and it's packed with nourishment.

Ingredients: Aloe barbadensis (aloe vera) leaf juice*, aqua (water), babassuamidopropyl betaine, decyl glucoside, sodium cocoamphodiacetate, panthenol (vitamin B5), simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) seed oil*, urtica dioica (nettle) root extract*, sorbitol, lonicera caprifolium (honeysuckle) flower extract, citrus limon (lemon) peel oil*, glycerin, guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, hydrolyzed soy protein, chamomilla recutita (chamomile) flower extract*, equisetum hyemale (horsetail) extract*, lavandula angustifolia (lavender) extract*, symphytum officinale (comfrey) leaf extract*, achillea millefolium (yarrow) extract*, camellia sinensis (white tea) extract*, potassium sorbate, salix alba (willow) bark extract*, arginine, serine & threonine (amino acids), sodium chloride, sodium benzoate, sodium hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid), sodium pca, borago officinalis (borage) seed oil*, helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil*, linum usitatissimum (flax) seed oil*, oenothera biennis (evening primrose) oil*, sulfur, soy tocopherol, cananga odorata (ylang ylang) flower oil*, citrus grandis (grapefruit) peel oil*, juniperus mexicana (cedarwood) oil*, pelargonium pelatum graveolens (geranium) flower oil*, pogostemon cablin (patchouli) oil*, santalum album (sandalwood) oil*, linalool†, citronellol† * Certified Organic † A natural component of essential oils

Where to buy: Beauty.com, ULTA Beauty, Well.ca, Amazon.com

Reverie Nude Shampoo

Reverie Nude Shampoo is on my "must try" list; it's hand-crafted in small batches and getting buzz for its pure, hydrating ingredients. Anyone got this yet?

Water, Lauryl Glucoside, Cocoglucoside, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, Sodium Lauroamphoacetate, Glyceryl Laurate, Sodium PCA, Sodium Lactate, Arginine,Arginine, PCA, Glycine, Alanine, Serine, Valine, Proline, Threonine, Isoleucine, Histidine, Phenylalanine, Sodium Lauroyl Glutamate, Hydrolyzed Prunus Amygdalus (Sweet Almond) Nut Oil, Phospholipids, Hydrolyzed Oat Protein, Panthenol, Phosphorus, Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Calcium Pantothenate, Magnesium Salicylate, Zinc Gluconate, Caprylyl Capryl Glucoside, Xylitylglucoside, Anhydroxylitol, Xylitol, PCA Glyceryl Oleate, Citrus Paradisi (Pink Grapefruit) Peel Oil, Citrus Aurantium Amara (Neroli) Flower/Leaf Oil, Backhousia Citriodora (Lemon Myrtle) Leaf Oil, Citrus Bergamia (Bergamot) Peel Oil, Pelargonium Graveolens (Geranium) Leaf/Flower Oil, Jasminum Grandiflorum (Jasmine) Flower Oil, Vanilla Planifolia (Bourbon Vanilla) Fruit Extract, Santalum Spicatum (Sandalwood) Wood Oil, Elettaria Cardamomum (Cardamom) Seed Extract, Myroxylon Balsamum Var. Pereirae (Balsam) Resin Extract, Pogostemon Cablin (Patchouli) Leaf Oil, Bisabolol, Phenethyl Alcohol, Gluconolactone, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Phytate, Citric Acid.

Where to buy: Sephora, Amazon.com, The Detox Market, Urban Outfitters

Briogeo Be Gentle, Be Kind Green Tea Shampoo

Briogeo Be Gentle, Be Kind Green Tea Shampoo is another one on my "I have to try this!" list. It uses all coconut-derived surfactants and is an impressive 96 percent natural.

Ingredients: Water, Lauramidopropyl Betaine (Coconut Derived), Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine (Coconut Derived), Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe) Leaf Juice, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (Coconut Derived), Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate (Coconut Derived), Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate (Coconut Derived), Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate (Natural Fatty & Amino Acid Derived), Glycerin (Coconut Derived), Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate (Coconut Derived), Polysorbate 80 (Vegetable Derived), Soyamidopropyldimethylamine Oxide (Soybean Derived), Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Seed Extract, Elaeis Guineensis (Palm) Fruit Extract, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Extract, Chitosan Succinamide (Vegetable Derived), Panthenyl Hydroxypropyl Steardimonium Chloride, Panthenol (Provitamin B5), Polyquaternium-7, Polyquaternium-71, Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Rosa Canina (Rosehip) Fruit Extract, Bambusa Vulgaris (Bamboo) Extract, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate (Coconut Derived), Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Chamomile) Flower Extract, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Peel Oil, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Oil, Cymbopogon Flexuosus (Lemongrass) Extract, Carica (Papaya) Fruit Extract, Dehydroacetic Acid, Benzyl Alcohol, Citric Acid.

Where to buy: Sephora, Beauty.comAmazon.com

Josh Rosebrook Nourish Shampoo

Josh Rosebrook Nourish Shampoo would be great for dry and damaged hair (and sensitive scalps) because it's SO chock-full of oils.

Ingredients: Vitamin-infused organic aloe gel, distilled water, organic african black soap, organic hempseed oil, organic oils of coconut, jojoba, grape seed, apricot & evening primrose, organic herbal extracts of: rosemary, burdock, horsetail, sage, oregano, thyme, lavender, peppermint, catnip, goldenseal, cinnamon, lemon peel, palm and cottonwood, certified organic xanthan gum & potassium sorb ate, organic essential oils of mandarin, rosemary, a proprietary blend of other essential oils

Where to buy: Amazon.comThe Detox Market

For more options, go check out Sephora's sulfate-free shampoo page. They're the mainstream beauty retailer with the biggest selection of sulfate-free products, offering both bigger brands and some really cool indie lines. You can also refine your sulfate-free search even further to just natural brands and/or fragrance-free brands. LOVE Sephora's selection and search filters!

How To Use Sulfate-Free Shampoo

How to use sulfate-free shampoo

Sulfate-free shampoo requires sopping wet hair and thorough contact with the scalp. (Photo: Sara Björk)

Okay, FINALLY let's talk about how to use these here sulfate-free shampoos. Obviously, your exact techniques will be a matter of personal preference (and time!), but this is my preferred process:

STEP 1: Wet your hair thoroughly. You know how you can lazily start washing your hair with a regular shampoo, even when you're half-asleep and it's not quite all wet yet? That won't fly with a sulfate-free product. Take the time to make sure your hair is completely soaked, as this will enable you to distribute the shampoo evenly on your scalp.

STEP 2: Apply shampoo to the back half of your scalp. Squeeze out a tiny amount of shampoo—like the size of a quarter, maybe a little more if you have a lot of hair or if it's very dirty. (Just because it doesn't lather as much doesn't mean you don't need to use more sulfate-free shampoo than regular shampoo.) Now, go in through the underside of your hair and apply the shampoo to the back half of your scalp. It should coat the area from the nape of your neck up to your crown and behind your ears.

STEP 3: Apply more shampoo to the front half of your scalp. Squeeze out another quarter-sized amount and do the same thing, but coating the front half of your head, from your front hairline to the crown and down through your sideburns. I find that doing this, dividing my head into two sections (front and back), is the easiest way to get good scalp coverage with sulfate-free shampoo.

  • Tip! Add water, not more shampoo. If it doesn't feel like your shampoo is spreading very well, try adding more water before you resort to applying more shampoo. Chances are, the water alone will be enough to help spread it around and produce a gentle foam.

STEP 4: Massage your scalp for THREE minutes. That's right, three! Most of us don't pay enough attention to cleansing our scalps and then wonder why our hairstyles fall flat less than 24 hours later. Use the pads of your fingertips (not your nails) to massage the shampoo around your scalp in circular motions.

Or leave your shampoo in for three minutes. If for some reason, you can't actively massage your scalp for the three minutes, then at least let the shampoo sit on your scalp for that long. I got this tip from celebrity hairstylist Charles Baker Strahan... even just having the shampoo sit on your scalp will give you some cleansing benefits. (Caution: I wouldn't do this with a sulfate product, however! That's just asking for trouble.)

Or shampoo twice. Finally, another option if you really can't wait is to just do a second shampoo. You will find that it spreads and lathers much more easily on the second round, for a more "squeaky-clean" feeling.

  • Tip! Skip your lengths. Unless your hair is extraordinarily dirty or you use a lot of heavy styling products, you don't need to scrub your lengths with shampoo. Like I said, it's your scalp that is more in need of attention. Simply letting the shampoo run down the lengths as you rinse will be cleansing enough.

STEP 5: Rinse for one minute. As per usual, you want to make sure every trace of shampoo is rinsed out of your hair. A good rule of thumb is to stand under the water (the colder, the better) for at least one full minute. Follow up with your conditioner or vinegar rinse of choice.

Conclusion

In case you couldn't tell, I don't think there's any reason NOT to use a sulfate-free shampoo these days. When I first started out as a beauty editor, that certainly wasn't the case—I can remember abandoning my fair share of products that didn't clean well or were just too aggravating to apply. 

Now, ingredient technology is so much better, and we don't have to sacrifice at all on performance or texture. Just about the only thing sulfate shampoos have going for them is that they're cheap, but you can even find sulfate-free shampoos at drugstore prices nowadays.

Most importantly, my hair seems in MUCH better condition after going sulfate-free, and apparently my scalp is happier, too. Have you made the switch yet?

Shop the Story

1. World | 2. Nature Clean | 3. Yarok | 4. John Masters Organics | 5. Reverie | 6. Briogeo | 7. Josh Rosebrook

Do you use sulfate-free shampoo? What has worked for you?

Top photo: Fuschia Foot