Gentle Hair Cleansers For The Sulfate-Phobic

Hair is becoming our second skin — well, at least in the way we take care of it. No one bats an eye when it comes to a five-step skin-care routine. And, hair maintenance has started to get just as involved. For example, scalp facials, anti-aging hair treatments, and BB Creams for hair have all emerged on the beauty scene this year. So, if investing time into caring for our hair is the new thing, then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate shampoo.
Can old-school shampoos stocked with sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) — the detergent and known skin irritant — really damage our hair? Yes and no. According to Washington, DC-based dermatologist Ella Toombs, “You can irritate the skin, but you can’t irritate the hair.”
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While they may not hurt your strands themselves, traditional SLS shampoos can inflame the scalp. And, while it’s important to cleanse the scalp — Toombs reminds us, “You have a million hair follicles on the scalp, each is connected to secreting gland” — gentler cleansers may be the best way to go for some, especially those with eczema or sensitive skin. “People with eczema tend to experience more irritancy with a lot of skin products with the skin being dry. For those individuals, suds-free, sulfate-free hair cleansers would be beneficial,” Toombs says, adding that it’s possible to get eczema flare-ups on the scalp.
For those who relax, straighten, dye, and overprocess their hair, SLS shampoos can also be extra-drying. Says Toombs, “The more suds, the more detergent activity. And, the more detergent activity, the more it is drying to the actual skin and/or hair shaft. So, you want to use a shampoo that can rid the scalp of oil and dirt, but not so much that it dries out the hair and the skin excessively.”
Want to treat your hair and scalp to a moisturizing free-for-all? Here are some gentle cleansers to do the trick.
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Developed for those dealing with cancer in mind, this hair wash eschews one SLS — sodium laurel sulfate for a more gentle detergent with the same initials — sodium lauroyl sarcosinate — that also happens to build body and sheen. The result is a clear and scent-free shampoo that lathers like a traditional formula, but is gentle enough for even the most sensitive of scalps.
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This hair wash, developed by biotech scientists, won’t allow you to build an awesome foam 'hawk while in the shower, but the SLS, paraben, phthalate and PEG-free formula is designed to regulate oil production on the scalp (and stop hair from going limp from excess sebum), thanks to a hearty dose of vitamin A.

Sans Hair Wash, $40, available at Anthropologie.
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Why can’t we wash our face with shampoos? Partially, because some silicones popular in shampoo can build up on our skin. But, this this aloe vera-spiked cleansing creme, created by a team that includes one of the preeminent cult hair-care makers, Bumble and bumble's Michael Gordon, can safely do double duty as a facial cleanser, shaving cream, and hair conditioner because it contains no sulfates, detergents, or silicone.
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Smells good enough to eat. And, considering it’s free of parabens, mineral oils, petrochemicals, synthetic emulsifiers, toxic preservatives, sulfates, silicones, and artificial color or fragrance, we’d be tempted — if its vitamins and amino acids didn’t do such a good job of making our hair shine out of the shower.
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With coconut and palm oil (to remove scalp buildup), xanthan gum (to volumize) and cinnamon, cranberry, and raspberry seed oil, this body and hair cleanser’s ingredient list reads like a gluten-free cookie recipe. Though the formula, created in partnership with the Environmental Working Group, is made without silicones, sulfates, phthalates, PEG, and synthetic fragrance, it still develops the mildest of lather when worked into the hair.
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“The ideal hair cleanser would be one that reaps the balance between removing excessive oil and dirt but simultaneously lubricates or moisturizes the hair shaft,” Toombs says. This moisture-rich cleansing cream (hydrator glycerin is a main ingredient) that launched a million infomercials and arguably, the un-shampoo explosion, aims to do just that. It’s also known to defrizz without robbing hair of its bounce.
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The exhausting list of ingredients in this sulfate-free shampoo may initially disenchant purists, but its superblend of plant extracts, fatty acids, and essential oils is actually safe enough to be used as a body and face cleanser — plus it smells like Thin Mint cookies. Even more surprising: Some users have claimed that the shampoo has helped reduce acne.
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This low-lather shampoo with a skeletal ingredient list makes a great cleanser for those allergic to fragrance and propylene glycol, and for whom SLS triggers itchy head.
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