Thinking of switching to sulphate-free shampoo? Here’s what you need to know.

Have you heard? Sulphate-free shampoo is a thing now.

Well, to be fair it’s been a thing for a while, but just like green juice and acai, once mum knows about it (and how to pronounce it), we can safely say it’s hit the mainstream. And it’s no surprise really, given the rise of “natural”, “green” and our obsession with wellness.

But, where once it was just eco and salon brands shouting the benefits of a sulphate-free life, now mass market brands are on board too, and you can’t swing a cat at the local Priceline without hitting a new SLS-free variant.

But, if you’re a newcomer to the game you may be asking what the big deal with sulphates is anyway, and wondering if you too should make the switch. So let us explain.

Sulphates are what commonly referred to as a “surfactant” or Surface Active Agent, and in shampoos it’s the ingredient responsible for that rich bubbly, lathery goodness that the Decore ad made so popular in the ‘80s (now tell me you don’t have that jingle in your head right now).

You can listen to beauty guru Leigh Campbell explain it in layman’s terms on Mamamia’s beauty podcast You Beauty below…

On your shampoo bottle, they’ll be listed as SLS (sodium lauryl sulphate), SLES (sodium laureth sulphate) or ALS (ammonium lauryl sulphate), and they’re also what makes your hair feel “squeaky clean”.

But, that’s precisely part of the problem as Celebrity Hairstylist and creator of the Iles Formula hair range, Wendy Iles explains, “sulphates absolutely strip the hair of everything including our natural oils, so that squeaky clean feeling is the worst thing that can happen to hair.”


Barney Martin, R+Co Creative Director in Australia adds, “sulphates can really dry out hair and cause scalp irritation, and they can also strip hair colour and make it fade faster.”

Also, if you have a keratin treatment it’ll remove that from your hair faster too. Sulphates are used in shampoos because it’s a cheap cleansing agent, but they’re also used in things like dishwashing detergent and other household cleaning products, and are derived from petrochemicals.

Knowing this backstory it’s easy to see why, in and age where everyone is more concerned about what goes on their skin and hair, more people are making the switch.



But, the road to shiny, happy hair isn’t as easy as just reading the back of the pack, because sulphate-free shampoos work differently to the regular kind, and if you don’t have the know-how it’s tempting to give up and go straight back to your Decore loving ways.

So, if you’re thinking about making the switch yourself, here’s what to expect:

Get used to no bubbles.

Because sulphates are responsible for the lather (which in turn loosens the grease and oil from your hair) a lot of newcomers to the sulphate-free life feel like their hair isn’t getting clean – but of course that’s not the case. “Clients traditionally associate product efficacy with a nice big lather, but it’s just a matter of getting used to something new,” says Barney.

Knowing this predisposition and wanting to overcome it Wendy’s MO for her Iles formula range was to create a sulphate-free shampoo that had lather. “I did much research to find ingredients that still delivered the lather effect people love without the use of sulphates,” she says. So if you’re looking for a more traditional shampoo experience, definitely try one which gives good bubble.


Rinse extra well.

Another by-product of the lack of lather is that you may be a little too relaxed in your rinsing because it’s not as obvious where the shampoo has been, and the sulphates aren’t doing the cleaning for you. With sulphate-free shampoos you need to work a little harder to massage the product in and cleanse your scalp yourself, otherwise your hair will feel weighed down, heavy, and could be left with residue.

 Add water, not product.

With traditional, sulphate-laden shampoos you add more product to get more lather (which, in your mind then translates to cleaner hair). But, with sulphate-free varieties, the trick is to add more water. Wendy explains, “more water is required because it wakes up the nutrients used to enrich the hair and create lather, whilst invigorating the hair with essential nutrients – vegetable extract in the case of Iles Formula”.


Barney also adds that you’re likely to use less shampoo to get the same result – because you’re not wasting product just to get maximum lather.

Choose for your hair type.

Just like with regular shampoo, for the best quality wash you need to choose a shampoo that’s specific to your hair type and/ or concern. “If you’re at the salon, chat to your stylist about the best product for your hair type as they may have some ideas that wouldn’t occur to you,” says Barney.

It’ll feel less frizzy and static.

Another upside to sulphate free, according to Wendy, is less static hair. This is because sulphate free shampoos allow the hair to maintain its natural oils which means it will have more moisture and less dryness and frizz.

Considering making the switch? Here are a few places to start:

Essano Argan Oil of Morocco Nourishing Shampoo, $15.99
Iles Formula Haute Performance Shampoo, $49
A’kin Daily Shine Rosemary Shampoo, $14.95
R+Co Atlantis Moisturizing Shampoo, $42

Sarah Tarca is a beauty, travel and lifestyle writer.

Do you use a natural shampoo you love? Tell us in the comments!