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Are Sulfates Bad For You?



Short answer

Yes, sulfates are bad for you. They have negative effects on the hair, skin, and mouth.



Long answer

Sulfate is a polyatomic anion that is produced when a single sulfur atom bonds with four oxygen atoms. Lauryl alcohol reacts with sulfuric acid to create a sulfate compound.  You can find sulfates in many of your personal hygiene products including shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream and body wash.  Sulfates cause the products to foam, lather, and cut through grease.  The most common sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). While both of these are known to be irritants, SLES is considered milder than SLS.  These irritants cause skin redness, drying, and itching.  It is estimated that 90% of shampoos and body washes contain one of these two sulfates.

Sulfates are the additive that makes the shampoo or body wash lather during application.  That lathering effect is what gives you that clean feeling.  However, that “clean lather” is actually stripping the moisture and protective barrier away from your skin and hair.  This can make your skin dry and cause your hair to look dull and damaged.  When you purchase a sulfate free shampoo, your first few showers may feel a bit awkward, as people often associate thick lather with being clean.  However, following your shower, you can expect to have clean and healthier hair and skin. 

Another step in your hygienic routine is brushing your teeth.  Since you were a small child, you likely remember the toothpaste lathering as you brushed your pearly whites.  Many studies have linked that clean and fresh lathering toothpaste that contains sulfates, to canker sores and irritations in the mouth.

Sulfates are labeled as safe for use in cosmetic products even though they are known to be an irritant.  However, some by-products of sulfates are extremely dangerous.  When sulfates are combined with other common cleansing ingredients, they produce toxic nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens.

In addition to hygiene, cosmetic, and skin care products, sulfates are also present in many household cleaners.  Be sure to take precautions when dealing with and household cleaner that contains sulfates.  Utilize proper attire, including gloves and a mask while working with the cleaning agents.  Even when shielded through masks and gloves, skin often comes into contact with the harmful chemicals.  If possible, opt to purchase sulfate free household cleaners.

Topically applied sulfate products seep into the skin and are absorbed into the body.  Long-term exposure to sulfates can cause organ toxicity, reproductive toxicity, and cancer. It is best to look for products that contain no sulfates or have a less than 1% concentration.  

Possible short-term side effects

  • allergic reactions
  • skin irritation
  • canker sores
  • dull hair

Possible long-term side effects

  • reproductive problems
  • organ toxicity
  • cancer

Big are sulfates bad for you.


  • provides lather to products

Sulfate-free skincare (what is this?)

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Written by DeeAnne Oldham | 03-17-2016

Written by DeeAnne Oldham
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