Sulfates Vs Sulfate Free – What’s Better For Your Products?

You’ve decided to delve into the world of private label and contract manufacturing for personal care products,  now your questions have become about what products to make and what ingredients should be in them. Typically personal care products fall into a couple of main categories such as hair care, body care, and oral care.

A lot of personal care brands have some form of cleaning products in their range, be it; shampoo, body wash, face wash, conditioner, hand wash, etc. This means that if you’re setting out to build a personal care offering, chances are you’re going to have one of, or a combination of, these items in your line up.

What you might not know, is what ingredients should go in these cleaning products, OR that a lot of the ingredients that go into these items are the same. A mistake many companies make when deciding on ingredients is only focusing on the additives  (goodies) of the formula, when they should actually be focusing on the formula’s core ingredients, otherwise known as the base of the formula. When considering the base, one of the main questions you should ask about your product is; should it have sulfates or be sulfate-free?. Well, let’s dive into that.

Sulfates Based Products

Sulfates are generally considered detergents or surfactants that are used in shampoos, conditioners, body washes, hand washes, face cleansers, toothpastes, and even household cleaning products.  The sulfates that are generally used are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth ether sulfate (SLES). These sulfates are added to create lather or bubbles and remove dirt and oils from skin and hair. One of the misconceptions of sulfate systems is because they lather, we perceive that to mean they perform well. It’s similar to the bubbling you get from the SLS in toothpaste that makes your mouth tingle, you correlate that feeling to the performance of the product even though it’s unrelated.

You may then ask; if sulfates are added for the purpose of cleaning and to produce lather why would they be bad for you? Well, sulfates firstly can be irritants to your eyes (which is why it burns when soap gets in your eye) and skin. Sulfates can, in the process of cleaning your skin, be harsher (than sulfate-free) and can sometimes take away essential oils from your scalp. With a trend towards more organic and green products in the market place, items with sulfate carry a negative connotation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work or that they’re dangerous.

Some of the most popular personal care products in the market use sulfates in their formulations, like Head & Shoulders, Dove Shampoo & Body Wash, & Old Spice Body & Face Wash. Even brands we generally think, perhaps due to their marketing, as green products like Method Hand Soap or high-end products like Aesop Body Wash use sulfates. Though there are some issues using these chemicals with creating products, they are in no way hazardous for your health.  If you are leaning towards a sulfate-system, then understanding the differences between sulfates can be a good way to decide which sulfate is for you. For example, SLS is generally a more aggressive surfactant and is more effective while cleaning while SLES is milder, causes less irritation and is less effective in cleaning.

As you can see there are pros and cons of choosing a sulfate solution for your personal care products, but there are still choices you can make that result in a less harsh product, a better cleaner or any other specific feature you’d like your product to have.

Sulfate-free Products

The benefits of sulfate-free products are the very fact that they don’t have sulfates in them. Sulfate free products are less harsh to the skin, are milder and are in most cases considered to be a more organic solution. Let’s take the example of a sulfate free shampoo, a sulfate free shampoo would commonly incorporate Sodium Lauroamphoacetate, Sodium Coco Lisethioate and/or Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate in their ingredients. This would mean that the sulfate that creates the stronger lather in the sulfate shampoo i.e SLS is not included in sulfate free shampoos thus does not create a strong lather as the foaming agent has been removed.

It’s very important to consider who your brand is targeted to and how they might perceive the lack of lather in your product. It’s not to say that the effectiveness of sulfate-free shampoo is less than a sulfate shampoo, but customers will have to unlearn their expectations for a certain kind of performance if they’re going to happily adopt your product.

Sulfate free products are less common in the marketplace, but here are some examples that you may recognize, like: Aveeno Pure Renewal Gentle Shampoo, Moroccan Oil Shampoo, & Aveda Dry Remedy Moisturizing Shampoo. Even brands like Pantene, or offering sulfate free options, to appease their diverse customer base.

With the trend toward more organic and green solutions, most of these conscious mined consumers will look fondly on a Sulfate-free system. But they’ll also tend to expect other goodies (active ingredients) to be added to these products, which will drive up the price of the formula. For example (and this example should be taken with a grain of salt, because you can find pricing on both sides of the spectrum when looking at these two types of products), when comparing the price per milliliter for the items mentioned in this article, on average sulfates cost $0.04 a milliliter, whereas sulfate-free products on average cost $0.09 a milliliter.


When determining whether to choose a sulfate or sulfate free system for your new contract manufacturing / private label venture, you must first ask yourself; who are your customers? And what message do you want your product to convey? Go for a sulfate solution if your customers would like a reliable personal care experience, a strong lather and a thorough clean. Go for a sulfate-free solution if your customers are looking for a less harsh (& less foamy solution), that communicates a more organic and green product. If you know your customers well, it’ll make this decision much easier.

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