What are parabens and sulphates, and why should you avoid them?

Modern haircare is a minefield. The plethora of shampoos, conditioners and other products available, all promising shiny and healthy hair, make it very hard to know what’s actually good for your hair and not just a buzzword. 

While some products keep their promises simple: ‘no more tears’ or ‘anti-dandruff’; others are covered in rules and suggestions for every different type of hair, length, porosity, and colour (including whether it’s dyed or not). Not to mention the long lists of unpronounceable ingredients! It’s virtually impossible to decide which you should avoid, and which are okay. 

Many personal care products contain parabens and sulphates.
Many personal care products contain parabens and sulphates. But what exactly are sulphates and parabens and what effects do they have on your body?

In this article, we aim to shed some light on this hairy issue by demystifying the two major ingredients found in hair care products: parabens and sulphates. 

These two infamous ingredients seem to crop up on the majority of haircare products lining supermarket shelves these days. Interestingly, most products seem to be eschewing these previously staple ingredients; companies are proudly declaring themselves to be “free from parabens and sulphates”. People with curly hair are particularly encouraged to find hair products that are sulphate and paraben free. But why

What is a paraben?    

Parabens are preservatives that have been used in personal care products since the 1920s, increasing the shelf life of products such as shampoos, conditioners, lipsticks and shaving creams. They also act as anti-bacterial agents, keeping hair and skin clean and free from germs. 

What are the effects of parabens?  

Parabens belong to the subcategory of endocrine disrupters known as xenoestrogens. As such, they have estrogen-like effects. This means that when they enter the body, they are stored in fat cells along with natural estrogen, increasing the overall estrogen levels in the body. This build-up of estrogens in the body has been related to an increased risk of cancer. Parabens, specifically, have been linked to breast cancer. 

How to spot parabens in your products

These days, choosing paraben-free products is relatively easy as most products clearly indicate that they are ‘paraben free,’ ‘free from parabens’ or contain ‘0% parabens.’ However, in the absence of such labels, it becomes much more difficult to tell whether there are parabens lurking in your products.

One reason for this is that parabens go by many different names when listed in the ingredients of personal care products. For example, methylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben are three of the most commonly used paraben ingredients. Some sneaky manufacturers avoid using the word paraben due to its negative connotations, and instead will list ingredients that contain parabens under pseudonyms such as alkyl para-hydroxybenzoates, among other names. 

Now that you know more about parabens and how and why to avoid them, it’s time to look at the breakdown of sulphates. Could they also be harmful to your health?

What is a sulphate?

Sulphates are essentially chemical detergents. They’re the ingredients in your shampoo, conditioner, body wash (and household detergents, among other products) that form the soapy lather to cleanse away dirt and germs.

Sulphates are cleansing and lathering agents.
Sulphates are cleansing and lathering agents. 

What are the effects of sulphates?

In haircare products, sulphates strip oil and dirt from the hair, leaving it squeaky clean. Unfortunately, sometimes they’re too good at their job, stripping away the natural moisture and oils that keep your hair soft and shiny and leaving you with rough, brittle, dry, hair and an irritated and itchy scalp. People with curly hair or colour-treated hair should avoid using hair products that contain sulphates as they can damage these fragile hair types.  

How to spot sulphates in your products?

Sulphates, if present, usually appear near the top of the ingredient list. There are two main types of sulphates: Sulphate Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate/Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulphate (SLES). 

Note: on some labels ‘sulphate’ may be spelled according to the American spelling of ‘sulfate’.

What are the alternatives to parabens and sulphates?

Parabens and sulphates aren’t inherently bad. Their detrimental effects are primarily related to the amount and frequency of use. However, if you want to eliminate parabens and sulphates, there are many alternatives available. 

Products that do not contain parabens may have shorter shelf lives, and products without sulphates may result in a build-up of oils in your hair. Natural products such as tea tree oil are effective in removing build-up from most hair types. For those with low-porosity hair, however, it will probably be necessary to use a sulphate clarifying shampoo once in a while.

Need help managing your chemicals? Talk to Chemwatch 

Many chemicals are not safe to be inhaled, consumed or applied to skin. To avoid accidental consumption, mishandling and misidentification, chemicals should be accurately labelled, tracked and stored. For assistance with this, and chemical and hazardous material handling, SDS, labels and large quantities of chemicals, contact Chemwatch on (03) 9573 3100.