With scalp facials and exfoliators, sheet masks, and cooling leave-ins on the menu, the options for hair maintenance are more comprehensive than ever. But even if you opt out of an exhaustive 10-step routine that rivals your skin-care regimen, it still might be time to re-evaluate your shampoo. While there are tons of ingredients and factors to take into consideration (parabens, artificial fragrances, the list goes on), there's one question that seems to come up again and again: Can formulas loaded with sodium lauryl sulfate, a common detergent and known skin irritant, really damage hair?
To put it simply, yes and no. "You can irritate the skin, but you can't irritate the hair," explains Washington, D.C.-based dermatologist Ella Toombs. Irritating the hair itself isn't technically a thing, but traditional SLS shampoos can trigger inflammation of the scalp, which is why gentler, sulfate-free cleansers are gaining steam — and why you might want to switch to one yourself, especially if you have eczema or sensitive skin. "For those individuals, suds-free, sulfate-free hair cleansers are beneficial," says Dr. Toombs.
If you relax, straighten, dye, or otherwise over-process your hair, SLS shampoos can be extra drying. Dr. Toombs explains that the more suds you see when you lather up, the more detergent is present — and the more detergent present, the more drying it is to your skin and the hair shaft. Her suggestion? Use a shampoo that can rid your scalp of oil, dirt, and product buildup, but not so much that it dries out the hair and skin excessively.
Want to treat your hair and scalp to a moisturizing shampoo free of those stripping detergents? Here are the best gentle cleansers that'll do the trick.