Over the last few years, sulfate-free products have taken over the shampoo shelves. But, the consensus on whether or not we should altogether remove them from our hair care routines is somewhat controversial. "Sulfates usually get the blame for stripping too much of the natural oil from skin or decreasing the lifespan of hair dye," Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in NYC, previously told Well + Good. However, they can be beneficial for their ability to create suds and are preferred "when someone needs a more effective cleaning method for removing heavier dirt and oils from their body," she adds.
Traditionally, shampoos have used a form of sulfate called SLS. This potent ingredient has garnered a negative reputation for being too harsh on the scalp and causing skin irritation. "Sulfates are those ingredients that create suds in shampoos," Gwen Jimmere, founder and CEO of hair-care brand Naturalicious, told Well + Good, "but they also strip our hair of its natural oils." That's why it was somewhat of a surprise to see that The Ordinary created a shampoo that features sulfate as the key ingredient. But the brand's Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Body and Hair ($8), which launched in late February, is unique because it's formulated with a sulfate called SLES-2 instead of the more commonly used SLS.
"SLES is a derivative of SLS and is often used as a substitute," says Dr. Nazarian. "The difference is in the rate of irritation, which has been shown to be much lower with SLES than SLS."
She goes on to explain that "products that are more irritating or drying can lead to breakage of hair follicles or irritation of the scalp, so for people who feel their shampoo or products might be drying their hair or skin, or who have fine or thin hair, SLES would be an appropriate consideration." Because of its milder formulation, it's able to gently penetrate below the scalp to thoroughly exfoliate hair follicles and clean hair strands.
Unlike SLS, "it is even ok to use if you have sensitive or dry skin," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in NYC. The Ordinary's shampoo pairs SLES-2 with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and squalene, which mimic your skin's natural moisturizing factors to lock in moisture and prevent dryness and flaking.
Sulfates are known to be effective for removing dirt, grime, oil, and product build-up from the scalp, so a sulfate-infused formula like this one can be particularly beneficial if you're regularly loading up on dry shampoo or other styling products. Even more of a reason to try it? The shampoo is also free of parabens and formaldehyde, which means that it won't strip hair color or cause damage.
That said, SLES-2 is still a sulfate, so if you've had sulfate sensitivities in the past, this shampoo may not be the best pick for your individual scalp and strands. "Studies have shown that the irritation from SLS increases with increNazarian. "SLES would be a better consideration… but it is still somewhat irritating to skin, as many surfactants can be. With every new product, people with sensitive skin should proceed with caution."
I have sensitive skin, but the first time I tried the product, I was a bit wary of how it would clean my hair because it has a super light texture, transparent color, and doesn't get very sudsy. A few online reviewers agreed that it doesn't lather to their liking, which comes as a result of the formula using SLES-2 versus SLS as its cleansing agent. But after just a few uses, that didn't matter much to me. I saw a pretty drastic change in how my scalp and hair felt. Most notably, I was really pleased with how quickly this shampoo alleviated my dry, itchy winter scalp. After just a couple of uses, I noticed that I didn't have any dandruff or flakes in my hair and that the itchiness was almost entirely gone. The product also doesn't have any fragrance, which is a huge bonus for me because of my irritation-prone scalp.
Though the shampoo is less than a month old, it's already received 3,500 "Loves" on Sephora's website. "While this does contain SLS it is the most gentle shampoo I've used. Sulfate shampoo is usually too drying for me, but sulfate-free has been even worse and leaves a weird residue. My scalp has been so dry and irritated for [a] month now, and nothing's worked. This is the first shampoo that hasn't made my scalp feel like it's burning after a shower. It does not lather, but it spreads well and cleans regardless. I don't think this is a miracle for the hair, but it's perfect for sensitive scalps," writes one reviewer. Another says, "AMAZING! No seriously. My hair had some horrible build-up. I have very long hair (almost down to my waist), and I found that this product lathered well with a minimal amount and cleaned my hair! It left it feeling amazing, clean and light and NOT dry!!!!"
At $8 a pop, I'd say this stuff is definitely worth a try.
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