Beauty Buzzwords: What are sulfates and parabens?

Image via Unsplash

“Parabens” and “sulfates” have become major buzzwords in the beauty world, yet no one ever seems to give us a reason as to why these ingredients are so bad for our hair. Many shampoos and conditioner brands now include terms like “sulfate-free” and “paraben-free” as a marketing ploy, conditioning us to recall that these ingredients are bad without providing an explanation.

VALLEY is here to breakdown what these terms actually mean, and their possible effects on your hair health.


Parabens are a type of preservative first introduced in the 1950s to prolong the shelf life in health and beauty products, preventing the growth of mold and bacteria. Parabens allow products to last for months in our bathroom cabinets, making the products cheap to mass-market for companies.

Some studies have shown that parabens have the ability to disrupt hormone function by mimicking estrogen, triggering an increase in cell division that has been linked to certain cancers and reproductive issues in women.

It’s important to note that the percentage of preservatives in product formulas is often very low, and researchers are still studying the impacts of preservatives on the human body given that an increase in the use of preservatives is more recent.

Parabens are tricky to notice in beauty products, yet when looking at the ingredients they typically have “paraben” in their name — butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben, just to name a few.


Sulfates, on the other hand, are cleaning and foaming agents, most frequently found in household cleaners, body washes and shampoo products. Two main types of sulfates exist in shampoo products: sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. These ingredients are responsible to create the lathering effect in shampoos that help remove dirt and oils from your hair.

On the plus-side, sulfates can be easy to identify in your shampoo products. The general rule of thumb is that if your shampoo easily makes a lather when you’re using it in the shower, there’s a very good chance it contains sulfates. Sulfate-free shampoos make little to no lather.

Sulfates are really good at getting rid of any buildup in your hair and scalp. But with that, they also strip away natural oils that help maintain healthy hair. This can lead to your hair feeling dry, rough and frizzy. The frizziness is caused by the negative electrical charge sulfates create when they make contact with hair follicles.

It’s best advised to avoid products containing sulfates if you have dry or fine hair, as your hair is more fragile and can be prone to further damage by the sudsy effects of sulfate shampoos.

Overall, sulfate- and paraben-free hair care products are a little more expensive than their conventional counterparts. At the end of the day, chemicals are chemicals, and everything is best used in moderation.

In general, never take marketing and advertisements at face value. Many drugstore shampoo brands advertise their products as “sulfate- and paraben-free,” but actually just replace those chemicals with other harmful ones. With so much information available online, it’s easy to educate yourself on the label ingredients of your beauty products to truly help yourself distinguish the “good” from the “bad” yourself.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.