Client Talk: Understanding Sulfates

By Rosanne Ullman | 02/26/2014 9:52:00 AM


click image to zoom For each client, you determine a shampoo selection based upon your experience with different cleansers and your knowledge of the client’s hair texture. When should you factor in whether a shampoo contains sulfates? How should you educate your clients about the latest research on sulfates? MODERN texture asked top artists and product developers who know their ’poo.


Q: How should salon professionals explain to clients what sulfates are and why they are controversial?

“Sulfates—the most popular being Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, or SLS—cut oil and grease,” says Macadamia Natural Oil Global Artist Erica Jemison. “They also help shampoos to lather and give them their ‘soapiness.’”

Experts agree, sulfates are found not only in shampoos, but in products clients will likely come in contact with on a daily basis, from toothpaste to dish soap and detergent. Mitchel Wilson, creative director of Learning Lab 2 for TIGI, explains “a sulfate acts as a magnet for oil and dirt. It attaches to the molecule, which then becomes heavier and rinses clean.” The water in shampoo tends to dry out and strip hair color, and some research points to sulfates as a further culprit in both areas.

“Curls tend to be inherently dry, and sulfates strip them of their natural moisture and oils—leaving them dehydrated and damaged,” says Kimberly Heathman, director of marketing for DevaCurl. “In addition, the sulfates irritate the scalp. It’s also important to communicate to clients that many conditioners and styling products also contain sulfates.”

Wilson says he encourages clients who are concerned about sulfates to read the full list of ingredients. “A product may say ‘sulfate-free’ on the front of the bottle,” he notes, “but on the back you may see a sulfate descendant or ‘relative’ listed. For example, ‘sulfonate’ is a cousin.”


Q: In the past, why did formulas routinely contain sulfates?

“Sulfates are surfactants, and they have been around for more than 75 years,” reports Heathman.

They were included in formulas because “the old school of thought was the more foam the better—which is not accurate,” Jemison says. The traditional “squeaky clean” feeling that clients sought became tougher to achieve as styling products and hair sprays grew popular.

“Sulfates clean up product buildup,” notes Mizani educator Evie Johnson. “But today clients don’t want their hair to lather, because they think that will make their hair dry.”


Q: Which clients should stylists steer toward using sulfate-free cleansers?

Heathman and Jemison agree all hair types, texture and color benefit from March 2014 9 sulfate-free products. While Wilson recommends sulfate-free formulas for clients who express concern about sulfates, he says he is convinced from his own extensive research that clients need not shun sulfates. “Higher concentrations of sulfates will be harsher and scrub out more color molecules, but water does that, too,” Wilson observes. “Do I see a tremendous amount of difference in color preservation or dry hair between formulas that are sulfate-free and those that contain sulfates? No.”

Johnson aims for a balance customized for every client. “Depending on how dry the hair is, I usually recommend sulfate-free formulas for clients who have naturally coarse hair, use keratin or get a color service,” she says. “But someone with fine texture whose hair gets very oily and must shampoo often? That client wants to avoid buildup that can occur with frequent shampooing and styling, and her hair can take a sulfates formula.”


Q: How will this topic be trending in 2014?

“We foresee professional brands moving to the ‘no-poo’ direction for the health of the hair and scalp for both textured and straight-hair clients,” says Heathman. “Clients understand the benefits of natural ingredients and the damaging effects of sulfates and silicones to hair.”

Others anticipate that sulfate-free formulas will continue to share shelf space with sulfate-containing products. “I think the sulfate-free/sulfates ratio will land at about 80/20,” says Johnson. “New technology offers ingredients like jojoba, coconut, argan and sesame oil that act as moisturizing agents to help replenish moisture, so I don’t see us going completely sulfate-free.”






ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rosanne Ullman

Rosanne Ullman, Project Editor | Modern Salon Media

Rosanne has been writing for the salon division of Vance Publishing for more than 30 years, contributing landmark articles ranging from a year-long historical series in the 1990s marking MODERN SALON's 75th anniversary to a more recent, comprehensive tribute to Vidal Sassoon's impact on the industry. She was involved in the conceptual planning for First Chair and has directed several of Modern Salon Media's custom publishing projects. Rosanne holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University's famed Medill School and contributes to her community through three elected terms on her local school board.

Rosanne is our go-to provider for Modern Salon Media's Healthy Hairdresser e-newsletter. You can e-mail Rosanne Ullman at


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