An Island dermatologist explains the truth behind the sulfate-free shampoo trend

Sam Caliguiri knew dyeing her hair would leave it unhealthy, so she picked a shampoo that would help fix it.

Caliguiri has been bleaching and dyeing her hair bright colours for years. She took a year of cosmetology at a trade school in Long Island, NY, Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

She picked a shampoo by Garnier that is made specifically for colour-damaged hair. It has a lighter formula, so it’s gentler for really processed hair, said Caliguiri.

“It doesn’t fade out the colour nearly as fast as a regular shampoo would.”

She looks for shampoos that are paraben-free and sulfate-free. Shampoos with those chemicals are technically detergents, she said.

“They’re found in most shampoos and they can be harmful to your hair.”

But Catherine Rodriguez, an Island dermatologist, said it’s not the type of cleanser but the act of washing your hair that is damaging.

True soap is a cleanser but it’s alkaline and tends to damage the natural skin barrier. Sulfates are a synthetic detergent or syndet that are chemical, soap-free substances, said Rodriguez.

“They’re developed with a neutral pH to achieve cleansing of the skin with minimal disruption of our skin barrier.”

There are two types of sulfates, sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, both create a thick foamy lather that strips away dirt and oil.

Sulfates can’t distinguish between our natural protective oils and dirt, she said.

“Unfortunately, the cleansing power of these substances is directly linked to their ability to damage our skin and hair.”

That’s why people like Caliguiri use sulfate-free shampoos. Rodriguez said those shampoos contain milder synthetic detergents less likely to strip away natural oils.

“However, they do not clean as well and generally do not produce the thick, cosmetically pleasing lather that sulfates do.”

Sulfate-containing shampoos are best used for oily hair, as long as you don’t wash your hair too frequently, she said.

“However, if your hair is not oily, or you have a dry and itchy scalp, it may be best to avoid sulfates.”

Using sulfates results in dry, brittle hair. Cleansing your hair too well can remove more scales and flakes of dandruff from your scalp, so using sulfate-free shampoos can prevent that from happening, said Rodriguez.

“These [scales and flakes of dandruff] absorb naturally-produced sebum and prevent your hair from getting greasy again too quickly.”

Sulfate-free shampoos may be the better option for coarse, curly or frizzy hair to avoid further drying it out.

The key to healthier hair is keeping it simple, not washing it more than once a week and avoiding heated styling tools, she said.

“It is important to realize that washing the hair is damaging in itself, regardless of the cleanser used.”

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