The sulfate-free debate is a tricky one that often results in a lot of suds and no clear answer. Though omnipresent in most drugstore goods like soap, toothpaste and shampoos, only recently has the public become more aware of the nature of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and its chemical sibling sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)—the inexpensive detergents that create all the lather and bubbles to effectively cut down on oil and dirt. However, they can irritate the skin, scalp and eyes and cause colored hair to fade more quickly.
Because of this, more and more consumers are becoming wary of the first few ingredients that are listed on the bottle. And even though it's a matter of preference and hair type—some people desire the deep clean feeling of regular shampoos, while others argue this feeling is natural oils being stripped from skin and hair—some brands like Aveda have been offering sulfate-free options since 1996, though they don't visibly label them as such. While we applaud their precedent of letting the product stand for itself, we've compiled an additional handful of sulfate-free shampoo options that boast more than just a lack of ingredients, for those who don't want to give up shampoo cold turkey.
This past January, a small, intimate salon with three chairs and no front desk opened at an undisclosed NYC address. Turns out, the owner of Hairstory Studio isn't a new face—Michael Gordon is the founder of Bumble and Bumble, and Purely Perfect is his first haircare project since selling the brand in 2006 to Estée Lauder. "If I was going to launch another brand, I wasn't going to do it the old way," he tells CH. Thus, Purely Perfect has a less-is-more approach with a unique product that requires no conditioner or masks afterwards. "I was determined to reinvent how we care for our hair and that meant starting with how we clean it. No one washes their face with heavy detergents anymore and you wouldn't put a cashmere sweater in with regular laundry soap—hair is no different. Detergent is unnecessary and in fact damaging to the hair; it's amazing to see how great hair can look and feel once it's off detergent." The brand emphasizes the lack of detergents instead of just sulfates and chooses to call it a "cleansing creme" to distinguish itself from typical shampoos.
The Purely Perfect Cleansing Creme takes a little getting used to, as it doesn't foam, and we were advised to use enough product to work it down to the scalp. An 8oz (236ml) bottle is $40.
Another new brand that launched this year is the unisex R+Co (Rogue and Company), founded by three hair industry veterans: Garren, Thom Priano and Howard McLaren. "In an industry not known for collaboration, we happen to enjoy working together and sharing with one another, so we are turning the old model on its head and bringing a fresh perspective," Priano tells CH on their arsenal of products designed to satisfy any hairdresser. The contemporary artsy packaging immediately grabs the eye, but it's not all just show: R+Co products are free of parabens, sulfates, petroleum and even offer UV protection. They use milder cleansers such as sodium lauroyl sarcosinate and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate in lieu of sulfates, as well as incorporating interesting ingredients. The Gemstone Color Shampoo, for example, contains hibiscus extract, pea extract, rice extract and golden root extract.
R+Co shampoos start at $24 for 8.5oz (251ml) bottles.
While Aesop is well-known for its skincare line, founder Dennis Paphitis was a hairdresser in Melbourne and the first Aesop formulations he developed was in fact a range of hair care products for his clients. Today, Aesop's in-house R&D team research both plant-based and laboratory-made ingredients for effective hair care, keeping in mind what's best for our bodies. While Aesop uses sodium laureth sulfate in some of their shampoos, they're careful to point out that it's significantly milder than sodium lauryl sulfate and the SLES they've chosen is derived from coconut oil. "Like any raw material, such as ingredients for food, or fabric for a garment, quality makes a big difference. Not all tomatoes are created equal and similarly not all sulfates are the same," a rep for Aesop explains to CH. "Things like the starting material (coconut oil vs. petroleum byproducts), manufacturing equipment, the quality control standards, and the final specifications can all impact the chemical properties of the final product yet the name of the ingredient will still be written the same way on an ingredients label regardless of these factors." Based on their years of experience and research, Aesop takes this stance: "Unless someone has a known sensitivity, or a history of reactions to cosmetic ingredients in general, we suggest that there is no scientific reason to feel uncomfortable with the use of sodium laureth sulfate at the levels and quality we employ."
They do offer one formulation, out of their six shampoos, that is sulfate-free for those who are sensitive. The Color Protection Shampoo retails for $29 for 6.8oz (200ml) or $49 for 17oz (503ml).
O&M (Original Mineral) started out as a salon dedicated to using color that was free from ammonia, PPD or resorcinol (and they're very transparent about what these ingredients are replaced with). They've since developed a full haircare line, especially targeted to those who regularly color their hair, with the same consciousness towards the body and environment. In lieu of sulfates, parabens, methylisothiazoline (MIT), phthalates, triclosan and propylene glycol, O&M chooses ingredients found in their home of Australia like the vitamin C-rich Lilly Pilly (a common hedge found in many Aussie gardens), quandong (a native Australian fruit), Kakadu plum, sea kelp, macadamia seed oil and more.
O&M's Fine Intellect Shampoo is great for those with fine, limp hair—adding moisture without weighing hair down—and also contains a UV filter through Provitamin B5 to protect color. O&M shampoos are $31 for 11.8oz (349ml) bottles.
Rahua has become a go-to amongst green consumers who remark on the glossy, bouncy results. While we admit being a little skeptical of the brand's claims of discovering the mysterious rahua nut and ungurahua oil through the Quechua-Shuar tribe in the Amazon, they do offer shampoos made completely from natural ingredients including quinoa, coconut and shea butter betaines, green tea leaf extract, sea salt and more. The unusual spicy fragrance comes from aromatic Palo Santo wood ("holy wood" used by Amazonians for centuries).
A 9.3oz (275ml) bottle of Rahua shampoo retails for $32.
Photos by Nara Shin