Why Are Sulfates (all of a sudden) An Issue?

With all of the conversation that we have had lately regarding personal care lawsuits and recalls (which you can read about in THIS POST), it was only a matter of time before one of you asked about sulfates specifically.

In the hair care world, and especially the curly hair world “sulfate” has become trigger word.

What is all the hype with sulfates?

It seems like everyone is talking about them, avoiding them, and alllllll of the shampoos out there are all of a sudden “sulfate” free, but what does that really mean? And why, if sulfates have been used in our personal care products for nearly a hundred years, are they just becoming a problem??

Let’s break it down:

The fact of the matter is truly quite simple. Sulfates are irritating, they are in more and more products every year at increasingly higher concentrations and to put the icing on the cake, we are consuming products, especially cleansing products, faster than ever before.

For starters, Sulfates are the very same cleaners used in auto mechanic shops as the primary means of degreasing for engines and other car parts. Thank you to Johnathan Van Nass for putting that fun fact out there for all of us.

Let me make just one fact clear right of the bat: we are no where near as dirty as a used, greasy engine, and I personally find the idea that my body requires the same cleanser offensive Especially after writing this article.

Sulfates are anionic, industrial surfactants that have been used in personal care products increasingly over the past three decades. They work by the weakening the adherence force that bind grease, oil, dirt, impurities and residues, dissolving them and preventing them from rebinding to the surface until they can be washed away with water. (3)

The bottom line is they’re effective.

But, they’re also aggressive. Sulfates, specifically Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, are named in many of the lawsuits I mentioned as a potential cause for hair loss and skin irritation, and for good reason.

Remember what I said about auto parts and engines. They can strip the oil of them in no time. Just think about how strong they have to be to accomplish that goal.

Their aggressiveness in our products is disguised by a slew of secondary surfactants and synthetic emollients (read: plastic) which are added to make the overall effect appear highly desirable (3) while hiding the true chronic dryness and irritation that is actually being caused.

The worse part about sulfates in our personal care products is that they are designed to target our skin and hair’s natural, highly effective means of self care: the sebaceous system.

The sebaceous system is our bodies natural way of protecting and lubricating our skin.

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It works by creating and releasing an oil called Sebum. It’s lipid-rich substance favors the growth of wide range of microbes which in turn hydrolyze triglycerides and release free fatty acids onto the skin. The released fatty acids create a protective barrier and contribute to the acidic pH of the skin, inhibiting the growth of many common pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes (which cause infection). (4)

The fatty acids also gently and subtly provide the exact amount of hydration that the skin needs to flourish. When dry and lacking, the sebaceous system will release just enough sebum to feed the microorganisms and rehydrate it.

The presence of sebum and the symbiotic microorganisms that it supports are highly beneficial to the health of the skin.

The problem is that the buildup of sebum on the skin and hair is perceived by modern consumers to be “unclean” and undesirable. Consequently, the principal aim of today’s cleansing products is to remove it and the fatty acids that it creates from the surface of skin and hair, and that goal is accomplished by setting the standard that our skin and hair require the use of harsh cleansers every single day.

This standard strips the sebum from our skin causing two chronic problems:

First off, the skin and scalp can become dry itchy, red, inflamed and even start scabbing. Out of the dozen or so journals I read on their safety the #1 concern when it comes to regular use was in regard to skin irritation and potential to cause severe epidermal changes to the area of skin of to which it was applied. (8)

The second part of the problem is that skin that is regularly stripped of its natural oils is left sending a constant signal of dryness to the sebaceous system, forcing it into overdrive. With the goal of rehydrating the skin and preventing irritation and infection (4), an abundance of sebum is created to calm and sooth the skin.

We are taught that chronic dry skin and slight irritation is somewhat of a normalcy, and that to avoid it we must depend on an eloquent collection of lotions, oils, moisturizers, toners and conditioners to keep our skin and hair sufficiently hydrated.

Day in and day out, the use of sulfates is setting our bodies into the belief that it lacing hydration causing more sebum than is truly needed to be produced, a problem that is exaggerated by any course correction that we do for ourselves through the use of hydrating products.

This over hydration is a major contributor to many of the excessive oiling conundrums we see today such as acne, along with skin and hair that are chronically oily.

The overwhelming effort from our bodies and our products to rehydrate our skin further the impression that we need to wash daily to get rid of the oil, when the cause of the oil is the cleansers themselves.

The cycle puts us into constant state of consumption. It’s designed that way.

We are given false belief that it is our scalp and skin’s natural oils, our own natural bodies, that need constant cleansing and then sold a combination of products that depend on each other. Forever.

When the system is broken many find that not only do their hair and body need less cleansing but, overtime, they also need less hydrating.

But none of this explains why, after nearly 90 years of using sulfates to wash ourselves, we are all of a sudden seeing so many issues, and for that discussion I would like to present this photo of the products one of my clients found throughout her bathroom.

This is Corporate America’s main objective: To keep us consuming.

The truth is that sulfates have been used in shampoo and other hair care applications since 1930s (4), but what is also the truth is that our consumption habits today and nothing like they were in those times.

In the 1930s, houses outside of major cities were getting running water for the very first time (1). It was the first time that the general population didn’t have to spend hours pumping from a well and lugging water inside for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

Most washed with a soap bar, and shared bathing water with family. This was normal.

There were no showers and bathrooms filled with dozens of products, or five step routines with a new product each layer. In fact, the use of plastic bottles for consumer products didn’t begin until 1950s, and didn’t become standard until the 1970s, and thus our personal care products were truly quite simple (read: little beyond bar soap) for much of that time.

Our increased exposure to sulfates is not just due to the sheer number of products we use that contain them now compared to 90 years ago, but also in the amount of those products that we are using.

Let’s compare bar soap (which was standard) to liquid hand soap (current standard), for example.

If a standard bottle of dish soap containing 40 uses and a bar of soap containing 400 uses, contained the same concentration of sulfates, that means that the bar soap would provide 100x more uses than liquid soap thus reducing overall exposure by 100x.

The other major difference when it comes to how we used sulfates 30 years ago versus how we use them today is the concentration itself.

This article studied the increasing use of sulfates over 21 years and determined that between 1981 and 2002 there was a 70.4% increase in the number of personal care products on the market that contained Sodium Laureth Sulfate and a nearly 10% increase in its average concentration (from 1% to 11%) inside the products themselves. (7)

So not only are we consuming more products in general, more of them contain sulfates and the concentration has also increased. It’s a true triple whammy.

I would love to hear your thoughts about sulfates and their impact on the health of your skin and hair in the comments of this post!

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  1. Indoor Plumbing Arrives in Rural America during the 1930s. (2003). 2003, Wessels Living History Farm, Inc. https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/life_13.html
  2. ICSC 0502 – SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE. (2008). International Labour Association. http://www.ilo.org/dyn/icsc/showcard.display?p_lang=en&p_card_id=0502
  3. Hair Cosmetics: An Overview. (2015). PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4387693/
  4. Sulfates in Shampoo. (2017). Office for Science and Society. https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-general-science/sulfates-shampoo#:%7E:text=Finally%20though%2C%20here%20is%20what,t%20changed%20all%20that%20much.
  5. Lochhead, R. Y. (2017). Basic Physical Sciences for the Formulation of Cosmetic Products. Cosmetic Science and Technology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/shampoo
  6. Essentials of Hair Care often Neglected: Hair Cleansing. (2010). PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3002407/
  7. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. (1983, December 7). Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate. JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN COLLEGE OF TOXICOLOGY. https://eservices.personalcarecouncil.org/PublicAffairs/Cosmeticsinfo/SLSALSAssessment1.pdf

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