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Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Does sodium laureth sulfate damage hair? You might not think so — or you may have no idea what we’re even talking about — but yet, it can.
Sulfates, surfactants, detergents — these are all just big words used to describe a compound whose properties make it ideal for the task of cleaning.
Some cleaning products may be better than others in certain situations, but if you’ve ever tried to get wine stains out of a carpet, you already know what we’re talking about when we talk about these products.
The thing is, some of these compounds can cause damaged hair. That’s fine when we’re talking about the fibers in a rug, or even that pair of jeans that you don’t mind roughing up a bit. But when it comes to our hair, we tend to be a little more protective — and a little more wary — about those risks of damage.
You may have read some rumors about sodium laureth sulfate that indicate it could do bad things to your hair over time. Cleansers gonna cleanse, but if they’re making your hair dry, thin or killing it off at the root, then there’s not much point in employing them.
So what’s the deal — should you avoid things like laundry detergents and hair products that have sodium laureth sulfate on their ingredient list, or can you keep on scrubbing worry-free?
To answer this question, we need to give you a little more information about sodium laureth sulfate before jumping into the scientific studies.
So what exactly is sodium laureth sulfate? It’s an anionic surfactant found in household cleaners and personal and hair care products.
Technically, the full name of this product is sodium lauryl ether sulfate, though you may have also seen sodium lauryl sulfate as well. So, even though the name is annoyingly complicated, it’s somehow already abbreviated.
Now, here’s a quick primer on surfactant cleaning agents like the hair products in question. Surfactants remove dirt, oil and other things from surfaces by changing the surface tension between two liquids. Want to get oil off of a dress? A surfactant will make it go away in water when you wash it.
Anionic sulfates like sodium laureth sulfate are very good at doing this. Anionic sulfates are extremely hydrophilic (meaning they are attracted to and can be dissolved by water), which helps them cling to some types of dirt more effectively.
This is what helps them remove dirt, sebum and other things that leave hair looking greasy, gross and feeling unpleasant to touch. If you need your hair thoroughly cleaned, anionic sulfates are probably a great place to go. But there is, however, too much of a good thing.
Sodium laureth sulfate has been portrayed negatively in the last few decades, but for the most part, the scientific community believes that is a misunderstanding. There isn't really any scientific evidence that these chemical compounds are unsafe for human use, nor do they pose threats to the environment.
There are, however, a few things that this type of sulfate can do that you probably don’t want done. For instance, the anionic nature of these sulfates can cause frizzy hair, which isn’t a desirable result for most people, even if it’s not exactly a health condition.
Another thing that sodium laureth sulfate can do to hair is increase friction. Essentially, when a sulfate does its job too well, it can actually remove the hair’s natural oils. When you remove a hair’s natural oils, it has no lubrication to prevent it from fracturing when brushed or otherwise styled.
You may not want oily hair, but those oils are important for your hair’s health. In addition to weakening the hair follicle and increasing friction (which can wear away at the hair’s protective keratin layer), removing oil can also cause dry and brittle hair. This hair dryness can lead to even more breakage over time.
There’s some irrational fear around sodium laureth sulfate, and we probably need to address that.
Sodium laureth sulfate has gotten a bit of a bad reputation for internet rumors that it may, among other things, cause cancer.
From what we were able to find, this idea is just a rumor. The FDA and other health groups generally consider sulfates safe for use, and aside from our cautions about overuse and stripping leading to dry hair and breakage, there isn’t really a powerful, universal reason to avoid them.
If you’re concerned about the potential consequences of using sulfates like sodium laureth sulfate in your hair, it may be a good idea to switch to a product free of sulfates. If nothing else, you’ll have eliminated one variable in any potential hair loss.
That said, regardless of whether sulfates were the culprits, we recommend talking to a healthcare provider about any symptoms of hair loss you may have noticed, just to be on the safe side.
We could try to convince you with warnings that hair loss can be a sign of serious illness or could scare you with the worst-case scenarios, but even in the best-case scenario, hair loss often suggests something isn’t right inside your body.
The sooner a healthcare professional assesses the situation, the sooner you know you’ll know what you need to protect your hair and maintain a healthy scalp.
And if you need some stronger products for hair loss than a sulfate-free shampoo, you have options.
There are other ways to protect your hair besides making drastic changes to your hair care and cosmetic routines. While they’re more significant work, they’re also more effective.
One of the most effective ways to protect your hair from hair loss generally is to use minoxidil, which you might know as Rogaine. Minoxidil (the generic) is a vasodilator that has the beneficial effect of increasing blood flow to your hair follicles.
Because your hair follicles get better blood flow with minoxidil, they also receive more oxygen and nutrients, which can both be reduced in certain types of hair loss. Studies have shown that using minoxidil over a period of time can increase hair count for the majority of its users.
A variety of vitamins and minerals also have beneficial effects for hair health. You may want to consider a multivitamin (like ours, with biotin) to supplement some of the essential nutrients your hair needs to thrive.
Some deficiencies can even cause hair loss, which is why diet and nutrition are so important to not just a healthy body, but a healthy head of hair, too.
Other ways of managing hair health might simply include using surfactants less frequently to protect your hair’s natural oils. It depends on your individual needs — which is why the best solution may simply be to talk to a professional.
Sodium laureth sulfate is just one of the many items on the ingredient labels of common household, personal care and cosmetic products that might have negative effects on your hair. But in the big picture, household and personal care products are probably not the most dangerous threat to hair health.
If you believe sulfates are to blame for your hair issues, definitely consider switching shampoos and other hair care products. But if you’re seeing major hair loss, it’s time to talk to a healthcare professional about those symptoms.
Taking early action is important when it comes to hair loss, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to reach out to our experts here on the Hers platform. Our hair health resources are a great place to find out about the daily supplements, prescription and over-the-counter treatments and other options that may help you protect your follicles.
We’re also a great place to learn more about the causes of hair loss, whether you have a diagnosis yet or not.
But taking steps beyond reading will mean the difference between hair today and scalp tomorrow, so before you make a trip to the shampoo aisle to search for a replacement, reach out for big picture hair health support today.
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