I Gave Up Suds — & My Skin's Never Been Softer

Remember those Herbal Essences commercials from the '90s in which, all of a sudden, a shower stream appears out of nowhere in a courtroom or an elevator and a woman washes her way to incredible hair right then and there? ("Yes! Yes! YES!") No matter the setting, they all had this white, sudsy lather that made her mane instantly shiny and gorgeous. This ad, among other things, has helped ingrain in us that the only way to get clean is with a bottle full of suds.

Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat, says consumers tend to believe that lots of foam and lather will leave hair and skin squeaky-clean. But lately, there has been a lot of negative buzz around sodium lauryl sulfate, the emulsifier and cleansing agent that provides said foaming. Companies are attracted to SLS as a detergent because of its low price point, but while it may cleanse effectively, it can also lead to a whole host of issues. "There are studies that show that, at certain levels, it can cause skin or eye irritation," says Robinson. SLS can also dry out hair and skin, especially for those who already have dry, sensitive skin; or curly, processed, or color-treated hair, he explains. Some believe that sulfates can lead to cancer, but studies have not substantiated it.

With all of this in mind, I decided to ditch all manner of bubbles for an entire two weeks. When I told Robinson about my plan, he said I could look forward to "gentler cleansing, less stripped skin, and more hydration." I was on board.

So I got to swapping. Instead of my typical shampoo, I popped Purely Perfect Cleansing Creme into my routine, a foam-free cleanser that doubles as a conditioner. I ditched my bar soap for Nuxe Prodigieux Shower Oil, which uses sweet-almond oil as a base instead of sulfates. For a scrub, I used Lush Ocean Salt on both my face and body. (Yes, even my facial scrub foamed.) And I swapped in The Organic Pharmacy's Carrot Butter Cleanser as my face wash. Full disclosure: I did continue to use hand soap outside of my house, because I'm not organized enough to carry around my own suds-free version.

During the first few days, it took some getting used to — it was incredibly strange to see my hair and skin soap-free when I was rinsing in the shower. Instead of foaming, the Nuxe lathered into a milky consistency, which subconsciously made me feel like I was getting moisturized instead of clean — the body oil I use leaves a similar residue. After the first shower, I knew that I was clean, but I didn't necessarily feel it.

Once I toweled off, though, I did notice that my skin felt softer. Like, intensely softer. I typically end my showers by rubbing on body oil from my neck to my toes before I step out of the steam. Once I dry off, I spritz on some dry oil before getting dressed. But this time, I actually forgot my second round of oil, because my body still felt hydrated. Not only did this feeling stick around for the entire experiment, it actually got better. Every time I showered, my skin felt like it was getting softer and softer — it was such a strange sensation. Since I love the dry oil I use, I still spritz it on from time to time. But it's because I want to, not because I need to. My face felt great, too — the minor breakouts I had cleared up within a few days, and they stayed away. I felt more hydrated without being greasy, and I had a seriously awesome glow going on. And since I was still using sudsy soap on my hands, they felt much drier than the rest of my body — a nice control for my experiment.

My hair also felt a hell of a lot better. I'd recently gotten it highlighted, and the bleach had left my ends a little worse for the wear. But using the Cleansing Creme, which is sulfate-free, helped protect my recently color-shocked mane. It also air-dried beautifully, whether I put product in it or not. In short, my strands were a lot happier sans sulfates.

That's not to say my little experiment wasn't without its pitfalls. I go to a gym that provides shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, and they all contain sulfates. That meant I had to lug around my products if I was headed to a sweat session immediately before or after work — or just wait until I got home to wash up. It was like what I remembered from my stint as a vegetarian: You have to plan ahead, or you'll be stuck at a BBQ joint, surrounded by ribs, eating a side of creamed spinach for your meal.

Now that I have completed my mission, am I totally off that #SulfateLife? Not quite. While I still use the Cleansing Creme, I have started alternating it with my regular shampoo and conditioner, too — mostly because I like the smell of the latter. (I am also conditioning before I shampoo, which is helping my hair to continue to feel healthy.) I love the Nuxe body wash — I don't see myself tossing it any time soon. And the Carrot Butter Cleanser is my new go-to. I'm especially excited to see how my routine affects my skin in the winter, when I tend to turn into one massive flake.

Notably, I have unlearned what we've all been taught since we were little. I now know that suds have zero to do with whether you are getting clean. My shower may not have looked like something out of a shampoo commercial, but did my skin and hair feel better? Yes, yes, YES!

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