Why Are Sulfates Bad for You?

Reviewed on 7/7/2021

What are sulfates?

What are sulfates?
Sulfates are a group of chemicals that are included in the category of salts, which are derivatives of sulfuric acid.

When you are shopping for shampoo or body wash, you may notice “sulfate-free” claims on the product labels. But what are sulfates, and why are they bad for you?

What are sulfates?

Sulfates are a group of chemicals that are included in the category of salts, which are derivatives of sulfuric acid. They are called by several names such as sulfurous anhydride, sulfurous oxide, and sulfurous acid anhydride. 

Another group of sulfate-containing products is sulfites, which are chemically different from sulfates. Sulfates are mineral salts that are derivatives of sulfuric acid, whereas sulfites are compounds formed during fermentation. Sulfites are present in wine and used as food preservatives. They may cause severe allergic reactions in some people, particularly people who have asthma or trigger migraines in others.

Sulfates in most household products essentially act as detergents. This is what helps liquids turn into a lather, removing dirt, oil, and product buildup from our bodies.

Where are sulfates found?

Synthetic sulfate-based compounds such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium lauryl ethyl sulfate (Sodium Laureth Sulfate; SLES) are often added to bath and personal care products such as:

  • Shampoo
  • Face wash
  • Soap
  • Laundry detergent
  • Bath bomb
  • Liquid soap
  • Hand wash
  • Dish-washing detergent
  • Toothpaste

What are the harmful effects of sulfates?

While sulfates are helpful in washing dirt and grime from our bodies, they can be harmful to your health in the following ways:

  • Sulfate salts in the air can react to form sulfuric acid that is an irritant for the eyes, skin, and mucus membranes. This can cause itchy and watery eyes, skin irritation, and breathing difficulties.
  • Sulfate-containing shampoo can strip away natural oils from your hair and scalp, making them rough and dry with repeated use.
  • Sulfate-containing soap and other personal care products can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions. Some people are particularly sensitive to sulfate-containing products and may develop dermatitis (skin inflammation) due to these products. Sulfates can also clog pores making skin prone to acne.
  • Chemicals containing sulfates are generally used for various purposes including making bath and personal care products, fertilizers, chemicals, dyes, glass, paper, and textiles. Sulfates in these products may finally find their way into the water we drink, harming its taste and quality.
  • Intake of large quantities of sulfates can trigger diarrhea and dehydration, particularly in infants and children.

Because of the harmful effects of sulfates, it’s better to use sulfate-free products, which are becoming increasingly available in the market for personal care and cleaning purposes. While these products may not produce the lather you’re used to or clean things as quickly, they are much safer and milder for your skin and hair.

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References
https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/dwq/chemicals/sulfate.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4651417/

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