Can Sulfate Shampoos BREAK Natural Hair?

By Jc of The Natural Haven Bloom
recently discussed the key role of SLS. It can clean oil off hair by causing the oil to dissolve in water. This oil film on hair is the main source of dirt. The oil film that surrounds the hair allows dust, fluff, lint, smoke particles, dead cells etc to stay attached to hair. Getting rid of this oil film is the principle function of SLS.

The next question is does SLS break hair?
Breaking hair is not quite the right term. When hair is washed even with plain water, some protein will be found in the water. This may in part come from breakage but it may also result from normal wear of hair (i.e part of the cuticle is already weak and then falls off).

How do we know that protein comes off when hair is washed?
The simplest test is to place some hair in a container of water and shake it around. After a few hours, the hair is removed and the water is tested to see how much protein came off the hair.

How much protein comes off?
Not much is the answer. One study which performed this test for 24 hours with different solutions is really useful for our purposes. (J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp163-175,1993).

Here is a table showing how much protein they detected in the study.

Solution Amount of protein (mg/g)
Water 8.4
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) 10.3
Ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS) 9.4
Ammonium lauryl ether sulfate (ALES) 8.1
Sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) 7.6
Sodium deceth 3 sulfate (SDES) 6.6

Taking water as our baseline, we can see that not all sulfates were created equal. Highlighted in yellow, the very effective cleansers have more protein debris than water. However other sulfates have less protein compared to water (highlighted in green).

Is there evidence that using SLS causes hair breakage?
One study on SLS reported that  they would predict daily shampooing (with SLS) would lead to combing difficulties within a year and split ends within 3 years due to cuticle depletion. (Colloids and Surfaces B: Biointerphases, pp 7.14, 2005)

In my opinion this is stating the obvious. Studies looking at how hair changes as it gets older have already documented that the hair cuticle is significantly depleted and completely absent around the 20 inch mark (around 3 years assuming a 6 inch per year growth rate). (J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp 155-175, 1977).

Cuticle wear is more related to hair care practices than SLS use.

To cut a long story short, any time you handle your hair, you damage it. There is no way to eliminate this but the damage sustained can be minimised by gentle handling of hair.

Note for accuracy: Using the word sulfate (sulphate) is not quite accurate.  The sulfate part of sodium lauryl sulfate is actually pretty harmless.  However in the curly world , the term sulfate shampoo is commonly recognized.


The Natural Haven

The Natural Haven

Scientist on a hairy mission!


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13 thoughts on “Can Sulfate Shampoos BREAK Natural Hair?

  1. Why does the baseline call for the hair to be soaked for hours? We don’t soak our hair in solution when we waah it, specifically not for hours, which in and of itself could cause damage by swelling of the hair strand.

  2. Here’s what I don’t get about people’s worry about SLS: it’s not based on the more worrying fact that SLS fast tracks xenoestrogens directly into your bloodstream (since you’re applying SLS shampoos onto skin, which has no barrier unlike when you ingest products).

    For the life of me, I don’t know why this isn’t added to the SLS conversation. Honestly, I think this is far more serious than breaking hair. We’re talking about fast-tracking chemicals that mimic estrogen.

    I’m sorry, but I had to write this. And the last time I mentioned this, there was a response that seemed like it was written by the FDA. Sorry folks, but know that SLS, combined with ingredients such as parabens and artificial colors are potentially carcinogenic. And, clearly, the government isn’t going to say this so if there’s any chance that your actions can prevent you from getting certain types of cancers.

    Anyway, I just wanted to share this with you lovely ladies…

    • There are sulfates in everything thats meant to clean something from dishes to toothpaste to facial cleansers to bodywash. Are we really going to stop using things because of what one research study shows??? its a little ridiculous to even use this as a basis for what it can and cant do for anyone’s hair because like someone said, we dont soap hair for hours for anything of this magnitude to happen. And more importantly is what you do to your hair AFTER you use a clarifying shampoo…As a natural hair stylist from Atlanta, I can tell enough of my clients who come into the natural hair realm discounting great products because of what some study said. I use Bumble and bumble and Design Essentials hair care line on my clients, and they all have beautiful hair. I make sure to educate my clients on the purpose of each product i use vs what is going to make your hair look like…lots of products can make your hair look and feel a certain way and is doing absolutely nothing for it. Sulfates are not the enemy. And quite frankly, the only time i use non-sulfates is if a clients has a undesired reaction to it such as itching or something to that effect, and that is far and few in between. no amount of oil rinse or condition wash is going to THOROUGHLY cleanse your hair because the purpose of conditioner are not made for that…But to each its own….I just thought I would add my opinion as a stylist. Naural women can relax a little and do a little trial and error when trying products….there are some terrible horrible products out there, but there are also some really good products, most of which carry sulfates…SN: everything is linked to carcinogens and cancer…until they can come out with a definitive answer for what causes certain types of cancer then just live your life and make common sense choices…

  3. Probably a silly question, but was the ‘natural’ in the title intentional? Do SLSs or even water damage relaxed/coloured/other processed hair more?

    Anyway, this is good to know (although I agree soaking for hours doesn’t reflect what happens out of the lab, but then again, maybe they did that because they weren’t doing the hair rubbing that DOES occur during hair-washing). However, for me, the damage of sulfates is to excessively dry out my scalp and hair, making my hair more tangly, which THEN leads to losing hair.

  4. This would be a better study if it was done on different hair types. Everyone’s hair is different. Therefore reacts differently to different compounds.

    • I agree. When my hair was relaxed and I didn’t know any better, i used shampoo with sulfates and my hair was long. It’s getting long now after several cuts and I don’t use sulfate shampoo but honestly I’ve never had hair breakage from using sulfate shampoo. Maybe it’s because I also made sure my hair was sufficiently moisturized which I think is the key regardless of the type of shampoo you use. sulfates may dry the hair out but moisture will counter act that.

  5. “To cut a long story short, any time you handle your hair, you damage it” That’s a little off putting, isn’t it? Every time the hair is handled it is damaged? Define “damage.”

  6. I don’t use sulfate shampoos because they dry out my hair and that in turn causes my hair to break and split. I actually just recently stopped using sulfate shampoos and everyone keeps commenting on how shiny and healthy my hair looks. I never though I would stop shampooing but I’m now a no-poo convert…

  7. I know sulfates are what make shampoos sudsy. I made sure mine didn’t have any, I got a good one based on argan oil and the difference is noticeable, less hair loss and frizz :) Really loving this shampoo! I got it online at and I’m planning on getting the conditioner and moroccan argan oil too.

  8. I have fine, wavy hair that tends toward dryness and frizziness. I use about a dime-sized amount of the Shielo Antioxidant Leave in Protectant on wet hair and then air-dry. I end up with shiny, wavy, frizz-free hair, which is amazing since I’ve tried pretty much every frizz-fighter around. Also, after a month I noticed my hair is breaking a lot less and overall looking healthier. Plus, the smell is amazing. Great product!

  9. I have been using sulfate shampoos for a long time and I have not had any problems with my hair being dry our damaged. As long as you keep your hair moisturized and stick to your daily routine, you won’t need to worry.

  10. Pingback: A lot about my hair pt 2. | The Awkward Black Doctor

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