By now, we’re accustomed to seeing shampoo and body wash—even hand soap—labeled as being “sulfate-free.” In fact, the term sulfate-free has become something of a buzzword. Much like words like nontoxic, natural, and organic, it carries a lot of weight and expectations, and might even drive sales up. After all, we are in the midst of a major clean-beauty movement, especially as people start to become more aware of individual ingredients and chemicals that they’re using in their beauty routines.

So let’s get down to it then. What are sulfates, and why are they inherently bad for you? The answer is quite simple. Sulfates are the foaming agents found in traditional shampoos. You know, the ones where you squeeze a big dollop into the palm of your hand, massage it into your hair, and feel that rich, bubbly lather? Those are sulfates at work. These foaming agents can have negative effects when they prove too harsh for your hair, stripping it off its natural oils and drying it to the point where it’s brittle and limp.

That’s why people reach for sulfate-free formulas. They’re thought to keep hair color and curls preserved more effectively and for longer than shampoos with these foaming agents. Although they might not lather up like you’re used to, know that your hair is still getting clean while becoming healthier at the same time.

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