I spent many hours as an apprentice studying the 1,000-plus page Milady Standard book for cosmetology. There was a TON of science. One chapter described the chemistry of shampoo. I was fascinated with how it works.
Behind the chair, I often am asked about shampoo, conditioning and styling products. I’ve studied the chemistry of shampoo (and I have chemist friends I sometimes contact for the skinny on things). This article can’t provide all the answers about shampoos, but hopefully it will provide useful consumer knowledge.
Hair has a natural oil coating called sebum. A good balance of oils keeps hair healthy and shiny. Hair also is similar to an air filter. It collects dirt, pollution, humidity, minerals, etc. The oilier your hair, the easier it is for dirt and pollutants to stick.
Shampoo’s main job is to cleanse. The cleansing ingredient is a surfactant or sulfate. There, I said it. The dreaded “sulfate!” Honestly, I think sulfate gets a bad rap. It is the coolest part of how a shampoo works.
If your shampoo was clear of all sulfates, your hair would not get cleansed well. If oils and dirt are not properly cleansed from the hair and scalp, you can get too much oil and skin build up from the natural sebum, which can lead to bacteria growth and infection. Yuck!
There are many categories of sulfates. The market simplifies shampoo into two: the sulfate category and the “sulfate free” category. The sulfate category has the powerhouse sulfates. These guys thoroughly cleanse and lather well, and they break up buildup from product usage and the environment. But, they can over cleanse when used daily on certain hair types.
The “sulfate free” category uses many milder sulfates. Often, there is a combo of a few milder versions in one shampoo. These guys are not known to lather well, but cleanse your hair in a gentle way. They won’t always remove buildup from heavy silicone-based styling products, or all pollutants from the environment, but are great for not stripping the hair of oils and drying it out.
So, sulfate or “sulfate free”?
- If you shampoo daily, “sulfate free” might be your best option, with one or two days of sulfates per month to rid any excess from your hair that doesn’t get removed with your “sulfate free” brand.
- If your hair is fine, oily and you wash every few days, sulfates might be a good choice for you.
- If you’re not sure which direction to go, sit down with your stylist and talk about options.
By Julie Kleine, contributing writer and stylist at Patricia Hill Color Studio in downtown Kennesaw. She is a Matrix Educator, a lover of dimensional color, precision haircuts, Starbucks coffee, cute dogs (well, any dog really) and the company of good friends.