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Our favourite sulphate-free shampoos

Amanda Angus / 16 September 2019

Who should be using sulphate-free shampoos - and why? Should you be avoiding sulphates in shampoo? We find out - and suggest our favourite sulphate-free shampoos.

An older woman washes her hair with sulphate-free shampoo

I recently had a relatively expensive treatment on my hair; as I was leaving, the hairdresser advised me to avoid any shampoo with sulphates in, in order to make the treatment last as long as possible.

Consequently, I spent about half an hour in the supermarket scanning long, confusing ingredient lists, and I discovered that it’s actually quite tough to find a sulphate-free shampoo in the supermarket. I eventually settled on the Ogx brand (£7 for 100ml), but it left me wondering – what other sulphate-free options are out there? And having never really given any thought to the presence or lack of presence of sulphates in my shampoos, I wondered whether I should have been avoiding them all along.

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What are sulphates in shampoo?

When you’re scanning the back of the shampoo bottle, odds are you’ll spot the terms sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate or ammonium laureth sulfate. These sulphates are derived from sulphur that’s been synthesised from petroleum jelly and they’re used in all kinds of cleansing products, from shampoos to toothpaste and everything in between. They’re ubiquitous because they’re efficient at removing dirt and oil with the foaming lather they generate, and that can be easily washed away with water - simple.

They’re not dangerous, but because of the rigorous way they clean, they’re not right for everyone – specifically, people with dry, frizzy hair, people who artificially colour their hair, and people who, like me, have had an expensive treatment on their hair that they want to last as long as possible!

That’s because their efficiency in cleaning can strip the scalp’s natural oils, leaving hair dry and brittle; sulphates can also inflame a sensitive scalp and cause itching and discomfort.

Renowned hairdresser Michael Van Clarke's range, 3 More Inches Cashmere Protein Shampoos (£19, 250ml) draw from a range of different naturally derived cleansers and are all sulphate-free. Here, he breaks down what sulphates you can expect to see listed on the back of shampoo bottles, and what they mean: 

SLS – Sodium Lauryl Sulphate. This is the harshest or most effective degreaser and creates lots of foam. It also has the smallest molecular structure. It can be unnecessarily harsh on dry hair or sensitive scalps.

SLES – Sodium Laureth Sulphate. This is a much gentler cleanser and has a larger molecular structure. We use this in our Cashmere Protein Volumising Shampoo (£19, 250ml).

ALS – Ammonium Lauryl Sulphate. ALS is gentler still and has the larger more complex molecule; this is harder for outer layers of skin to absorb so is seen as much less likely to irritate sensitive skin. We use this in our Cashmere Protein UV Protective Shampoo and our Exfoliating Scalp Shampoo (£24, 250ml).

SLMI - Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate is also derived from coconut oil, is sulphate-free and considered one of the mildest surfactants (cleansers) on the market. We use this in our Cashmere Protein Moisturising Shampoo.

He says "Milder surfactants may not lather very much and may not be as effective on very oily hair or hair laden with styling products, so you may need to shampoo multiple times [with a sulphate-free shampoo] where once with an SLS shampoo will do. The milder ones will limit the fade on hair dyes through shampooing and be gentler on the scalp."

Whilst I had trouble locating sulphate-free shampoos in the supermarket, you may start seeing sulphate-free shampoos more and more, especially in brands that have more of an eco-friendly focus – petroleum jelly is one of those things that is, at some point, going to run out; whilst the amount used in shampoo production is just a drop in the ocean, why use a finite resource if you don’t have to?

However, if you have an oilier scalp or suffer from dandruff, you’ll probably benefit from the presence of sulphates in your shampoo, so don’t just cut them out without considering how they may affect you.

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How to use a sulphate-free shampoo

Because sulphate-free shampoos don’t necessarily create as much of the lather that we’re used to seeing, and associate with ‘clean’, you may need to slightly adjust how you wash your hair. Natural haircare company Noughty, founded in 2016 by schoolfriends Rachel Parsonage and Lorna Mitchell, has the following advice:

• Water is key to getting the most from sulphate-free shampoos. Make sure your hair is soaking wet before you work the shampoo through it.

• Put a small amount of shampoo in your palm, then rub your palms together to activate it before working the mixture through your hair.

• Start with less shampoo, activating and adding more as you find you need it.

Help for thinning hair

Our top sulphate-free shampoos

All these are cruelty free (so no testing on animals) and – crucially – sulphate free!

Best all-rounder

Guava and Gold Coco and Cherimoya shampoo and conditioner, both £22.00 each for 250ml

This smells like a summer holiday in a bottle, and looks attractive – the plastic bottle is see-through and the shampoo slightly iridescent, so it shimmers as you squeeze it into your hand. It lathers up well so there’s no need for a second application. You can feel the difference immediately; hair feels softer as soon as the very fragrant conditioner has gone on, and a little goes a long way. Hair is markedly shinier. It’s not the cheapest option, but it’s a lovely choice if you’re buying it as a special pampering gift for someone else.

Best for price

Tough Cookie Strengthening Shampoo and Conditioner, both £6.99 each for 250ml

Vegan, British brand Noughty Haircare prides itself on offering 97% natural ingredients; the added fragrance makes up some of that leftover 3%, but with good reason – the gorgeous scent hits you as soon as you open the packaging. I’m always pleased when shampoo and conditioner comes in squeezy tubes as I find this makes the product easier to squeeze out with wet hands, and their design means that the product is always at the opening end, unlike a bottle. I did find that after shampooing, my hair felt like it needed conditioner more than after certain other brands, but as I always use conditioner after shampooing anyway, this made no odds – and once the conditioner washed out, it left hair feeling clean and healthy, and smelling lovely.

Best for natural and organic

Green People Quinoa & Artichoke Shampoo and  Conditioner, both £15.50 for 200ml

All Green People products use up to 99% active natural and organic ingredients to protect and nourish hair; the vegan Quinoa & Artichoke shampoo uses 81% certified organic ingredients, and the conditioner uses 91%. Neither quinoa or artichoke are products we’re used to seeing in our beauty regime, but both have been chosen with good reason. Quinoa protein has been shown to boost shine by over 50%, and artichoke smoothes the hair’s surface to increase the hair’s sleekness. I particularly liked the scent of these – rather than a main course, it reminded me of a lemon dizzle cake, unsurprisingly, as the ingredients include lemon peel and ginger. The squeezy bottles were easy to manipulate, and the matt finish made them less slippery. I didn’t have an immediate hit of softness when applying the conditioner, but I was pleased with the look of my hair once dry, so if organic, natural products are important to you, this is a very good option.

Best for shine

Michael Van Clarke 3 More Inches Cashmere Protein Moisturising Shampoo and Conditioner, both £19 for 250ml

Neither of these are very scented; the shampoo smells pleasantly if faintly clean, and the conditioner smells of very little, but the lack of scent makes you wonder whether that's simply because the product's energies are focused elsewhere - on shine. After just one application my hair was noticeably shiny, to the point that people around me commented. I also particularly appreciated the pump on the conditioner, as I found I had more control over how much product I dispensed, so reducing waste. If having a pump worries you, in terms of recycling, perhaps invest in a 1 litre bottle - at £54.50, this isn't cheap, but it saves you money in the long run, and means that you'll only need to throw away one pump rather than four in the time you're using it. 

Best for families

LoveBoo shampoo £6.74 for 250ml and conditioner, £8.99 for 250ml

If you frequently have grandchildren over to stay and often have to provide the products for bathtime but hate having too many bottles of shampoo cluttering up the bathroom, Love Boo could be the answer. Made in Britain and containing argan oil to leave hair silky and glossy, as well as coconut, fig and papaya extract to strengthen and condition, the shampoo produces lots of lather and is kind enough for your grandchildren’s hair as well as your own.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.