Are 'paint stripper' chemicals in shampoo destroying your hair



21:42 GMT, 18 April 2012

So you regularly spend hours — and what feels likes a week’s wages — getting your hair highlighted, you’re never without straighteners and you’ve even tried a Brazilian blow-dry to get the perfect sleek look.

Yet your locks stubbornly remain more lacklustre than luscious. Have you ever considered your shampoo might be to blame

Research suggests it could be — specifically brands that contain sulphates. These have been used for decades as foaming and cleansing agents. You’ll find them in toothpaste and shower gel as well as most shampoos.

Hair-raising: Shampoos containing sulphates are more likely to make hair turn limp and dry

Hair-raising: Shampoos containing sulphates are more likely to make hair turn limp and dry

Recently, though, the cosmetics industry has got itself in a lather over them — partly because of a trend for more ‘natural’ cosmetics containing gentler ingredients, but also because they have been found to fade the colour of highlighted or dyed hair, and affect the results of long-lasting Brazilian hair-straightening treatments.

They are also more likely to make hair that is often styled with heated appliances such as straighteners and tongs turn limp and dry.

As a result, in the past 18 months an increasing number of hair products boasting they are ‘sulphate-free’ have started appearing on supermarket and chemists’ shelves.

So what are sulphates, and do we really need to be cautious of them In the words of one well-known cosmetics advert: here comes the science bit.

A sulphate is a salt of sulphuric acid (gypsum, or plaster of Paris, is probably the best-known example). With shampoo, two particular sulphates are commonly used: sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES)

It is these that are being excluded from the new breed of shampoos. Not that there is anything actually dangerous about them — the much-repeated internet rumour that they are potentially carcinogenic is a myth.

Technically called surfactants (a shortened form of ‘surface-active-agents’), sulphates act as cleaning agents to dissolve dirt, boost foam and enable dissolved dirt and oil to remain liquid so they can be rinsed away.

These attributes undoubtedly make sulphates useful ingredients for shampoos: the problem is that not only do some people find they irritate their skin, they can also over-strip hair — like paint stripper.

If your hair is lack-lustre and out of control despite your best efforts, consider switching to a gentler shampoo

If your hair is lack-lustre and out of control despite your best efforts, consider switching to a gentler shampoo

‘SLS and related compounds lather well and produce a rich foam, which cleans the hair effectively, but they can irritate the eyes and leave the hair dry,’ says dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting.

‘This is a particular problem for those who colour or straighten their hair regularly, or have very long hair, where the ends can easily get into bad condition.’

Their over-effective cleansing action can also gradually strip hair colour. Fans of Brazilian-style hair-straightening treatments, especially the ones that use a small percentage of formaldehyde to achieve their long-lasting results, will have been advised by salons to avoid sulphate-based shampoos.

Finding an effective SLS-free shampoo used to be difficult, but recent advances in technology mean that there are plenty of shampoos to choose from containing gentler cleansing agents derived from corn, coconut and oats.

‘Gentler surfactants can clean the hair just as effectively as harsher ones,’ says Dr Bunting.

‘The fact that a shampoo produces foam is not a good indicator of how well it works. Gentler surfactants are an excellent choice for most people, especially anyone with processed hair or a sensitive scalp.’

Examples of effective surfactants include cocamidopropyl betaine and sodium lauraminopropionate. ‘These will clean the hair and leave it soft and manageable,’ he says.

Conditioners don’t contain SLS or SLES. On a shampoo’s ingredients list the chemicals will usually appear second. But if you scan the list closely it can be confusing, since many of the ingredients, even in designated ‘sulphate-free’ shampoos, may still end in ‘-sulphate’.

‘The one we use as a foaming agent — sodium coco sulphate — is derived from coconut,’ says a spokesman for Green People, a company that specialises in organic body-care products and eschews damaging surfactants.

So, if you fancy trying a more gentle shampoo, the key is to look for the words ‘sulphate-free’ on the packaging. This will mean that the product is free from sodium lauryl sulphate and sodium laureth sulphate, no matter what other sulphates appear as an ingredient.

And are these products worth it Well, if your hair is coloured or straightened, it may well thank you for it.


Green People

GreenPeople: 5/10

Green People Irritated Scalp Shampoo


Fresh-smelling and clear — and concentrated, so you need less than usual.

I used what I thought was far too little, a 50p-piece sized blob, but it was more than enough. Left my hair feeling clean, but a little rough.


L'Oreal: 9/10

L'Oreal: 9/10

L'Oreal Paris Everpure

5.99/250ml, Boots and Superdrug

Thick, smooth and sweet-smelling, this was a delight to use and proves that the latest, high-tech formulas don’t have to be the most expensive.

Produced lots of lather and left my hair smooth and manageable.


Pureology: 6/10

Pureology: 6/10

Pureology Perfect 4 Platinum Shampoo

13.85/250ml, 0800 783 3026 or

Bright blue and smelling like apples, this contains an ‘anti-fade’ complex and cleansers derived from coconut, corn and sugar to cleanse without stripping colour.

Gave a rich lather, but left my hair feeling slightly tacky and not as smooth as usual.


Ojon: 10/10

Ojon: 10/10

Ojon Super Sleek Smoothing Shampoo

20/250ml, QVC

Created to cater to the straightened-hair market and also to deal with coarse hair. Silky and creamy, it left my hair feeling beautifully moisturised. Expensive, but a real treat.


Bumble & Bumble Colour Minded Sulphate-Free Shampoo

Bumble & Bumble: 8/10

Bumble & Bumble: 8/10


Luxuriously thick and silky shampoo that is lovely to use. Lathers up really well and rinses cleanly, and left my hair shiny and smooth. I’d swear that my colour was looking brighter, too.