Are Sulfate-Free Shampoos Really Better for Color-Treated Hair?

You asked, we answered. In this Q&A article, we’re breaking down sulfates and whether or not sulfate-free shampoos are really better for color-treated hair.

Of course, the main culprit of color-fade is always hot, hard water. The short answer is, yes—sulfate-free shampoos can help reduce the process of color-fade. But if you know which ingredients to look for in a shampoo, you can even preserve your color. To help break down the mystery of sulfates, we’ve asked our Research and Development Manager, Jeffrey, and our Product Development Manager, Emily, to weigh in on the most commonly asked sulfate questions.

01 What are “sulfates”?

Jeffrey: Sulfates are strong detergents found in a variety of beauty products like soaps, skin care, and even toothpaste. They’re mostly abrasive ingredients added to amp up the cleansing power of your soaps and creams by targeting oils and dirt. Because of this, some sulfates can have a negative effect on your hair’s health leaving strands dry and brittle. The two classes of sulfates include those ending in “yl” such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) which are considered harsher, and the sulfates ending in “-eth”  like sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) or the mild sulfates.

Sulfates are generally what creates a foamy, rich lather, which is why they’re in so many products. While bubbles act an emulsifier that helps to break up water and spread your soap, they’re not necessarily needed to cleanse your hair. There are other cleansing ingredients that are equally effective and sulfate-free, however, they may not give you that super-rich foamy lather you’re used to. But not all bubbles are created equal—while big bubbles are generated with drying sulfates, some sulfate-free products can still give you a creamy, modest-bubble lather.

02 Can shampoos with sulfates cause color fade? If so, how?

Emily: It depends on the sulfate. There are some sulfates included in shampoos that can be quite strong and inadvertently cause your color to fade. They do this by penetrating the hair’s cuticle, which strips natural oils and dries out your hair. When your hair is dry, your color lacks vibrancy. Still, some sulfates (when used in small volumes) won’t cause color fade, as they aren’t abrasive and won’t strip your hair of the good stuff while cleaning.

You may be thinking that stripping your hair of oil can be a good thing, but you actually need some of that oil to keep your hair nice and hydrated. That’s because hydrated hair attracts color, and that’s basically what gives you that high-shine and seamless finish.

03 How do I know if a shampoo has sulfates in it?

At low concentrations, ingredients like cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate are part of the good “sulfate” family, since they don’t strip your hair of moisture. In fact, these sulfates can even act as conditioning agents that add moisture back into your hair as it cleanses. And since hydrated hair is less porous, it’s the ideal environment for color.

The two common not-so-good (and super bubbly) sulfates are sodium laureth sulfate and ammonium laureth sulfate. That’s because they can totally strip your hair of moisture and nutrients, causing your hair to become brittle—and brittle hair equals color fade.

04 Which shampoo ingredients will help preserve my color?

Jeffrey: Our favorite color-preserving ingredients include hydrolyzed quinoa, wheat protein, and sunflower seed extract. Think of wheat protein as a primer that helps to smooth strands and lock in moisture for seamless color application. Quinoa is a superfood that nourishes and holds onto pigments in the hair, while antioxidant-rich sunflower seed extract blocks out harmful UV-rays (kind of like sunscreen for your hair). Caring for your hair with ingredients that hydrate, shield strands from the sun, and reduce the presence of free-radicals, helps you preserve lasting color. We know these ingredients sound delicious, just don’t drink the shampoo.

05 What shampoos do you recommend?

Emily: We recommend you use color-safe shampoos that are free of those “not-so-good” sulfates I mentioned earlier. We take a five-factor approach to our color-care system— shield, replenish, protect, nourish, and reinforce—that enriches and prolongs your shade. Each of our shampoos are made with specific ingredients for every hair type and need. Our 2-in-1 Cream CoWash, Classic, Volume, Repair, and Moisture cleansers, can all be mixed and matched without worrying about any negative color effects.

Don’t forget, shampoos should always be followed with a conditioner to add moisture. Shampooing with the right ingredients and conditioning in between makes a difference in preserving your color.

Now that you have some insight into what sulfates are and what they do, you’re ready to take on ingredient labels with care. Need more color-care tips? Feel free to reach out to us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, or give us a call to chat with your colorist.