Friday, 8 June 2012

Are sulfate free shampoos really gentler?

I am kicking off the sulfate (sulphate) free shampoo series with this question - are they really more gentle? This post assumes some knowledge of shampoo and surfactants and regular readers of this site will be familiar with the terms used. If you are new (welcome!) please read this summary on sulfates in shampoos.

Q. What is a sulfate free shampoo? 

There is no official definition but broadly cosmetic companies class a shampoo as sulfate free if it does not contain

1. SLS or SLES (sodium lauryl sulfate and its gentler form sodium lauryl ether sulfate)
2. ALS or ALES (ammonium lauryl sulfate and its gentler form ammonium lauryl ether sulfate)

Q. Are sulfate free shampoos more gentle?

Many sulfate free shampoos have low irritation but not all of them do. You must always trust how your hair and scalp feel after the wash.

There is one particular ingredient in some sulfate free shampoos called olefin sulfonate which is actually comparable in irritation to SLS. Remember that SLS is one of the most effective surfactants and gets rid of oil very easily but as a result is also quite harsh on skin. One study on irritation produced a good relative comparison between shampoo surfactants (Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, pp125-139,1986). I have highlighted the ingredients according to how similar they are in terms of irritation in the table below

Sulfate and Sulfate Free Shampoo Surfactants
Surfactant Sulfate Free Charge %Skin Swelling (in 1hr) Irritation Intensity
SLS No Anionic (-) 20-40%
Severe in 1 day
Olefin Sulfonates
Yes Anionic
(-)
15-26% Severe in 1 day
Soap Yes Anionic
(-)
13-21% Intense by day 4
SLES No Anionic
(-)
11-17%
Moderate by day 5
Sorbitol esters (polysorbate/tween 20) Yes Non-ionic
(none)
0.2-0.5%
None expected

 From the table you can see that olefin sulfonate which some call a 'mild' surfactant is actually comparable to the most irritating surfactant SLS. Meanwhile SLES which is regarded as a 'harsh sulfate' is much gentler generally producing a moderate reaction if left on skin 5 days after washing.

There are other surfactants such as sorbitol esters used in sulfate free shampoos which are genuinely more gentle (more to come in a future post).


Q. Does your shampoo contain olefin sulfonate?

From the shampoos that you listed, the following do contain olefin sulfonate

1. Trader Joe's Tea Tree Tingle (C12-C14)*
2. Ion Inspired by Nature Shampoo (C14-C16)
3. Giovanni Teat Tree Triple Treat Shampoo (C12-C14)*
4. Giovanni 50:50 Balanced Hydrating Clarifying Shampoo (C14-C16)
5. Giovanni Smooth as Silk Deep Moisture Shampoo (C14-C16)
6. Kinky Curly Come Clean  (C14-C16)
7. Organic Care Systems Power Build and Moisture Shampoo (C14-C16)

* - In the journal cited above, the C12-14 olefin sulfonate causes the greatest amount of irritation.  (If you are wondering, C12 means that there are 12 carbon atoms, C16 means that there are 16 carbon atoms. In general making the surfactant larger i.e more carbon atoms usually reduces irritation)

Next up I will go through some more of the popular surfactants used in sulfate free shampoos and will highlight the ones which ARE not thought to irritate the skin.
  
Credits:
Thank you to the commenters who asked specifically about olefin sulfonate in previous blogs and set up this series :)

36 comments:

  1. I am so happy that you are addressing this issue. Manufacturers are tryna pull a slick thing on us consumers and many of us are falling for it, wondering why our hair and scalp are reacting the same way as if we used an sls containing shampoo. Thank you!!! I thought I was the only one that realized it.

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  2. About Olefin Sulfonate, well, I had the same question not too long ago and searching I found that some cosurfactants may help a formula be milder when paired with stronger surfactants, for example in Giovanni Smooth as Silk Deep Moisture Shampoo:

    Aqua (water), sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate, cocamide MEA, COCAMIDOPROPYL BETAINE, *chamomilla recutita (matricaria) leaf extract, *citrus aurantium dulcis (valencia orange) extract, *citrus grandis (grapefruit) extract, *cymbopogon schoenanthus (lemongrass) extract, *echinacea purpurea extract, * ginkgo biloba extract, *glycine soja (soybean) seed extract, *lavandula angustifolia (lavender) extract, *rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf extract, *macrocystis pyrifera (sea kelp) extract, *mangifera indica (mango) extract, *salix alba (willow bark), sodium chloride, acrylates copolymer, glycol distearate, amodimethicone, sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, decyl glucoside, ethylhexylglycerin, disteareth-75 IPDI, C11-15 pareth-7, citric acid, laureth 9, glycerin, trideceth-12, phenoxyethanol, natural fragrance

    I've seen many formulas with "harsh" surfactants and then cosurfactants, the problem is cosurfactants also play an aesthethic role in some formulas, so it's a little hard to know if a shampoo is milder or not sometimes.

    Well, I mention just in case it may be interesting :) I love your blog ^^

    Greetings

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    1. Yes you are right. I will be later talking about mixing surfactants. It is possible to reduce irritancy in this way but I think some consumers of sulfate free shampoos assume that there are no harsh surfactants in them at all, so this is just to highlight that olefin sulfonate is very similar to sls. Many sulfate shampoos do not even use sls except in clarifying formulas, many opt for the gentler sles. Some do combine sls and sles which is in essence the same effect that you are talking about.

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    2. Thanks so much for posting this JC! I have a question about ingredients lists like the one above. There are lots of extracts listed before we get to the sodium chloride, and what looks like even more surfactants. Is this a marketing trick? Aren't these extracts just dissolved in the water listed as the first ingredient?
      Thanks in advance for your response!

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    3. lol yes these extracts are my pet hate. I generally ignore them on the list because they are generally placed and highlighted early on to make people think that the product is more botanical than it really is. In reality, the surfactants and oils are what make the product work either as a shampoo or conditioner

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  3. This is good information and addresses the importance of really knowing about the ingredients.

    I am looking forward to the next post!

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  4. mangomadness8 June 2012 23:09

    Awesome post! I hope decyl glucoside (in Shea Moisture Moistue Retention Shampoo) makes the "gentle" surfactant list.

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  5. That is why i enjoy this blog as it exposes the myths and causes us to scrutinize our products to suit our hair. :)

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  6. Kinky Curly Come Clean turned my hair into hay! It makes my hair squeaky clean. That was my first natural hair faux pas. My question is where does saponified oils come in as far as harshness? I now use Karen's Body Beauiful's conditioning Shampoo. It doesn't make my hair feel like the KCCC, but I do pre poo my hair to death now.

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  7. Is sodium LAURETH sulfate the same thing as sodium lauryl ether sulfate? I'm confused... there are some that say it's the same as SLS and others that say it's the same as SLES. Please clarify, thanks!

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    1. Yes sodium laureth sulfate is the same as sodium lauryl ether sulfate or SLES - the clue is in the word 'eth' which is in reference to a process called ethoxylation which converts SLS to SLES. In ethoxylation, SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) is made gentler by adding more carbon atoms and forming SLES. So SLS has 12 carbon atoms and SLES (the mild form) has around 14-16 carbon atoms depending on how it is converted.

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  8. Oh that's good that you talked about it. I have sulfate free shampoos that dry my hair either. And I do not know why. One is what you said, the Kinky Curly, he seems shampoo residues. Thank you

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  9. My skin is very sensitive and some shampoos can really set it off. Thank you for this post because now I've got one more thing to be on the look-out for in labels.

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  10. Thank you all so much for your comments and compliments :)

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  11. Glad your doing this! Sulfates don't irritate my skin but, they do dry out my hair overtime.

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  12. Hi Jc, do you know Olivamidoprophyl Betaine? Do you think it is a mild sulfate?

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  13. Hey Jc I have a question for you. I was looking at purchasing Jane Carter's SLS free shampoo but in the ingredient list I can't seem to find any ingredient that looks to be a cleansing agent. I'm all for gentler alternatives but if there isn't ANY thing to cleanse my hair with than I think I'll have to pass. Do you see any cleansing agents/ingredients?

    Deionized Water, Extracts of: Aloe Vera, Comfrey, Watercress, Myrrh, Panthenol, Anthemis Noblis Flower (Camomile), Symphytum Officinal Leaf (Comfrey), Equisetum Arvense (Horsetail), Urtica Dioica (Nettle), Rosemarinus Officinalis Leaf (Rosemary) ,Humulus Lupulus (Hops), Lawsonia Inermis (Henna), Certified Organic Essential Oils: Lemon, Vanilla Extract, Polyquarternium11, Soyamid DEA, PPG30, Cetyl Ether, Oleth-3 Phosphate, Hydroxypropyltrimonium hydrolyzed wheat protein, Phenoxyethanol

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    1. I have seen this listing on the Jane Carter website and you are correct to say the cleansers are missing. The curlmart list however for the same product does have surfactants in it

      Aloe Barbadensis Gel, Purified Water, (aqueous extracts of nettle, burdock, and rosemary), Sodium Methyl Sulfolaurate, Disodium Sulfolaurate, Sodium Sulfoacetate, Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate, Sodium Lauroyl, Sarcosinate, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Cocoamidopropyl Betaine, Disodium Lauroamphodiacetate, Glycol Stearate, Sodium PCA, Polyquaternium-7, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Oil, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, PG-Propyl Silanetriol, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Extract Fragrance, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate, Citric Acid

      http://www.curlmart.com/product/jane-carter-hydrating-invigorating-shampoo/

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    2. Thanks for replying I truly appreciate it! I was wondering if I could ask one more q. I'm not that well versed when it comes to surfactants but seeing the list and that there are sooooo many surfactants would you consider this a harsh shampoo? Are all of these surfactants milder that sls?

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    3. I will do a list on mild surfactants in the next post. In general most shampoos whether sls or sls free have 2-3 surfactants, admittedly Jane Carter has very many. I don't think that more surfactants makes it harsh, if the surfactants are mild, then having more of them is necessary to increase the cleaning power. Remember that milder surfactants tend not to clean as well (i.e not remove oil as well).

      The best way to judge harshness is by using the product.

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  14. I have a shampoo that doesn't contain SLS or ALS but magnesium sulfate. I'm finding conflicting information about it. Is it a harsh sulfate?

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    1. Do you mean magnesium laureth sulfate because magnesium sulfate is just a salt and is not a cleaning agent in shampoo? If you mean magnesium laureth sulfate then it is similar to SLES. If you mean magnesium lauryl sulfate then it is similar to SLS. You can judge the harshness in the table above but ideally you should really trust what your hair and scalp is telling you (does your hair feel very dry after shampooing, does your scalp get itchy or irritated after washing....if yes, the shampoo is too harsh for you)

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  15. I will be answering many of your questions in upcoming posts.

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  16. Gosh....I'm surprised that Olefin Sulfonate is just as harsh as SLS!! Now I'm wondering what to do with my 32 oz (!!!) bottle of Giovanni TTT Shampoo!?! I wanted to inquire Jc--if I only shampoo-wash 1 time a month, do you think it would be okay then to use the Olefin Sulfonate containing-shampoo still? Or is any use at all causing the most irritation (due to residues)? I was thinking/pondering about frequency and moderation as other effects.

    My other question--with the shampoos listed above, do you think there is correlation (or causation) with why the two with Tea Tree in them have the harshest surfactants? Or do you think this might be coincidence (as it's not yet an extensive list)? I'm wondering if other Tea Tree containing shampoos have (C12-C14) as well? I ask because I am a fan of Tea Tree shampoos, and would otherwise be looking to replace this TT, with another brand. I check into this and send you some (ingredient lists) I might come across.

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    1. Hi!

      Q1 - If you shampoo just once a month, you are probably going to be fine even if you chose a clarifying sls shampoo. If you find yourself itching soon after your shampoo or your hair feels super dry then it is time to change. If not, your shampoo is fine for you.

      Q2- I have a list of about 50 shampoos and their ingredients and these are the ones that came up with olefin sulfonate. I think that it is an interesting observation about tea tree and the C12-C14 olefin sulfonate. I cannot explain it though and yes we would need more tea tree type shampoos to say there is a correlation.

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    2. Hi! Thanks for your reply :-)

      Q1--thanks! I will keep this in mind!

      Q2--Wow, okay, I misread the post, my apologies and thanks for the clarification. I think it's interesting as well, I might look for some and see if they are already on your list.

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    3. Hi! Thanks for your reply :-)

      Q1--thanks! I will keep this in mind!

      Q2--Wow, okay, I misread the post, my apologies and thanks for the clarification. I think it's interesting as well, I might look for some and see if they are already on your list.

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  17. Jc, I wanted to ask a question: remove the sulfates lightweight silicones hair? all or only volatile?

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  18. What do you think about the cleansing agents in Lamas rice protein volumizing shampoo? Water (aqua), sodium cocoamphoacetate (and) glycerin (and) lauryl glucoside (and) sodium cocoyl glutamate (and) sodium lauryl glucose carboxylate, certified organic pelagonium graveolens (rose geranium) allplant essence*, cocamidopropyl betaine, coco-glucoside (and) glyceryl oleate, caprylic/capric triglycerides, glycol stearate, hydrolyzed rice protein, rice amino acids, certified organic simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) seed extract1, certified organic chamomilla recutita (matricaria) flower extract1, certified organic hydrastis canadensis (golden seal) root extract1, certified organic yucca aloifolia extract*, certified organic urtica dioica (nettle) extract1, certified organic symphytum officinale leaf extract1, certified organic rosa canina fruit extract1, panthenol (vitamin B5), phytantriol, glyceryl stearate, guar hydroxypropyltrimonim chloride, citric acid, sodium chloride, caprylyl glycol, phenoxyethanol, fragrance with essential oils.

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  19. stumbled onto your blog and just wanted to show some blog luv! def enjoyed this post! New follower via email :-)

    http://infinitelifefitness.com
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  20. Hi :)
    In some sulphate-free shampoos I've used I've seen something called Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate in the ingredients. This sounds suspiciously similar to SLS, is it also a harsh sulphate or is it different? Thanks for your input! :)

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  21. So I know all these chemicals are harmful. What about recommending brands for use on the hair and body that have none of these things?

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  22. I just bought Eden all natural shampoo made with peppermint /tea tree oil. I seem to think this shampoo and the hair milk leave in is pretty good. What do you think about these products?

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    1. If you are happy with it, that is what counts. I am not one to try many products so I have not tried the brand you talked about

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  23. Hey there! I just want to add a correction... I've tried many of the Giovanni poos and none of the had olefin sulfonates in them! Perhaps earlier formulations had this ingredient. I actually found them all to be rather gentle. I like the 50:50 best, and SaS isn't bad either.

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  24. I switched over to sulfate-free shampoos about 2 years ago and wanted to find one that was moisturizing because like sulfate shampoos had a drying effect on me and my quest began. After some research I decided to purchase the Shielo Hydrate Shampoo and Hydrate Conditioner and it has become a staple. I like the the smell and a little goes a long way. One bottle lasts for months! !

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