Sulfate-Free Shampoos Are Gentle on Your Hair and the Environment

An expert hairstylist weighs in.

A woman smiles as she flicks her hair from side to side.
(Image credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Shopping for a new shampoo and conditioner can be an overwhelming experience. With products promising everything from hair growth to color retention and more, it can be hard to nail down the best formula for your hair, and even harder to understand what types of ingredients you should be looking for—and avoiding—when shopping for your newest shower staples. There's one ingredient, however, that's gained notoriety as something that should be avoided in hair products, no matter your hair type: Sulfates.

"Sulfates are types of cleansers," explains Riley Finn, a color educator at Tricoci Salon & Spa. "All are not inherently bad, but they are not all created equally." Indeed, sulfates such as sodium lauryl sulfate (one of the most common sulfates found in hair products) are harsh and can strip hair of moisture, leaving strands dull, frizzy, and tangled.

Still, while it's important to find gentle cleansers that don't strip your hair of its natural oils, it's also important to ensure that your shampoo is clarifying for your hair and cleanses dirt and sweat from your scalp. And Finn admits that striking this balance can be "very hard for the average consumer to navigate."

To make this process easier, we've tapped Finn to unpack everything there is to know about sulfate-free shampoos, from understanding the importance of finding a sulfate-free formula to discovering the best product for you. 

Why a Sulfate-Free Shampoo?

As Finn mentioned, sulfates can provide a deep cleansing that ultimately does more harm than good. 

"A harsh cleanser can strip your hair color and leave your scalp feeling dry," she explains. Therefore, if you're looking for a deep cleanse that doesn't cause harm, opt for a sulfate-free clarifying shampoo instead. 

Finn also adds that sulfates can hinder long-term hair growth because of the drying effect they have on your skin. 

"Proper care of our scalp is very important to nurture future hair growth," she says. "It’s literally the soil that feeds our hair, so it’s important that we keep that soil balanced and hydrated so that we can have the healthiest hair possible. A healthy scalp is vital in preventing hair loss as we age as well."

The overall verdict? "If you are buying a professional grade sulfate-free product, you will be getting a gentle surfactant that will protect your hair and scalp with clean science to back it," Finn concludes.

The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoos

Meet the Expert

Riley Finn
Riley Finn

Riley Finn is a hairstylist and color educator working for Tricoci Salon & Spa. Currently, she's based in Chicago. 

Gabrielle Ulubay
Beauty Writer

Gabrielle Ulubay is a Beauty Writer at Marie Claire. She has also written about sexual wellness, politics, culture, and fashion at Marie Claire and at publications including The New York Times, HuffPost Personal, Bustle, Alma, Muskrat Magazine, O'Bheal, and elsewhere. Her personal essay in The New York Times' Modern Love column kickstarted her professional writing career in 2018, and that piece has since been printed in the 2019 revised edition of the Modern Love book. Having studied history, international relations, and film, she has made films on politics and gender equity in addition to writing about cinema for Film Ireland, University College Cork, and on her personal blog, Before working with Marie Claire, Gabrielle worked in local government, higher education, and sales, and has resided in four countries and counting. She has worked extensively in the e-commerce and sales spaces since 2020, and spent two years at Drizly, where she developed an expertise in finding the best, highest quality goods and experiences money can buy.

Deeply political, she believes that skincare, haircare, and sexual wellness are central tenets to one's overall health and fights for them to be taken seriously, especially for people of color. She also loves studying makeup as a means of artistic expression, drawing on her experience as an artist in her analysis of beauty trends. She's based in New York City, where she can be found watching movies or running her art business when she isn't writing. Find her on Twitter at @GabrielleUlubay or on Instagram at @gabrielle.ulubay, or follow her art at