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What Are Sulfates? The Kiehl’s Guide To Sulfate-Free Skin and Haircare

“Sulfate-free” is a label thrown around a lot in skincare and haircare. Here, Kiehl’s explains what sulfates are and the benefits of going sulfate-free.

The beauty industry is inextricably linked to science, and comprehending how different products work often requires at least a passing familiarity with chemistry. This is especially true when it comes to ingredients—reading a product label often feels like trying to navigate an advanced science textbook. While some ingredients are relatively self-explanatory (think plant extracts and oils), others, like sulfates, can be a bit confounding. In recent years, sulfates have become a major topic amongst beauty buffs, with many claiming that sulfate-free skincare and haircare products are “better” than those containing sulfates. While that’s a misconception, sulfate-free products can have a spot in your routine.

To help you figure out whether sulfate-free products are right for you, we’ve put together the Kiehl’s guide to sulfates and their use in beauty products. You’ll learn what sulfates do, how they’re listed on product labels, and some potential benefits of going sulfate-free. We’ll also introduce you to a handful of sulfate-free Kiehl’s skin and haircare products that you can use in your routine. Get ready to learn, and read on to discover truths about sulfates in cosmetics.

What Are Sulfates?

Chemically speaking, a sulfate is a salt of sulfuric acid. There are a few different types of sulfates, but the most common ones used in beauty are sodium lauryl sulfate, sometimes abbreviated as SLS, and sodium laureth sulfate, abbreviated as SLES. In cosmetics, sulfates are generally used as cleansing agents. They help cleansers create a lather and are therefore most commonly found in cleansers, including shampoos and face washes.

What Do Sulfates Do?

Sulfates are a type of cleansing agent known as an anionic surfactant. In cosmetic products, surfactants bind with dirt, oil, and other impurities on the hair or skin, making them easier to wash away. Sulfates are generally believed to be fairly strong detergents and provide a thorough cleansing when used in cosmetic formulations. Their strong cleansing properties can make shampoos with sulfates particularly useful for those with oily hair.

While there are a lot of misconceptions about sulfates and their potential drawbacks, the reality is that they’re safe for use in cosmetic products: There’s no evidence to suggest that they’re problematic when used as intended.

Why Consider Going Sulfate-Free?

If there’s nothing inherently wrong with sulfates, you may be wondering what the whole hubbub about sulfate-free products is about. Ultimately, it comes down to your beauty needs. For example, sulfate-free shampoos are a great option for those with color-treated hair, as sulfates can sometimes strip color, leaving your salon-made mane looking flat and faded. Sulfate-free cleansers are also gentle, which may make them a good choice for those with sensitive skin and scalps or dry hair.

4 Sulfate-Free Products To Buy At Kiehl’s

If you’re interested in adding sulfate-free products to your routine, you’ve come to the right place. Ahead, discover four sulfate-free haircare and skincare products that you can score at Kiehl’s.

1. Calendula Deep Cleansing Foaming Face Wash

To give your skin a thorough clean, sans sulfates, reach for Calendula Deep Cleansing Foaming Face Wash. This non-drying cleanser with glycerin and calendula extract gently lifts away dirt, oil, and other impurities without stripping the skin of essential moisture. The unique gel-to-foam formula instantly refreshes the skin, while continued use over time helps relieve visible redness and discomfort. Our gentle cleanser is suitable for all skin types and can be used morning and night for skin that feels calm and balanced.

2. Centella Sensitive Facial Cleanser

If you have super-sensitive skin, Centella Sensitive Facial Cleanser is a must-have in your routine. This sulfate-free face wash is our mildest cleanser. It gently cleanses away dirt and oil while helping to strengthen the skin’s natural moisture barrier, leaving your skin feeling moisturized and soothed for up to eight hours. You can use it as you would a standard facial cleanser—that is, apply it to damp skin, lather, and rinse—or use a clean cotton pad to sweep the liquid wash over your face—no water required.

3. Calendula Herbal-Extract Alcohol-Free Toner

Post-cleanse, tone and soothe your skin with Calendula Herbal-Extract Alcohol-Free Toner. This iconic formula with calendula petals and allantoin first hit Kiehl’s shelves in the 1960s. It helps cleanse the skin without over-drying and is clinically-demonstrated to visibly reduce redness, excess oiliness, and unevenness in as little as three days.* We recommend using this cult-classic toner after washing your face: Simply moisten a sterile cotton round with the alcohol-free formula and swipe it over your face, focusing on areas prone to irritation or unwanted shine.

*Results based on expert grading in a four-week clinical study on 62 subjects.

4. Magic Elixir

Treat your scalp and strands to a little TLC with Magic Elixir. This pre-shampoo treatment with avocado oil, rosemary oil, and safflower oil immediately leaves your scalp and hair feeling moisturized. It also imparts your mane with healthy-looking shine and helps boost manageability for soft, supple strands. The lightweight treatment oil is suitable for all hair types and can be used regularly to help promote a healthy scalp environment.

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