If you've ever been bemused in a pharmacy, you might have wondered - are sulphates bad for you? Have you heard the old joke? Two chemists walk into a bar. One says to the barman, ‘I'll have H20’; his pal says ‘I'll have H20,’ too and then promptly kicks the bucket after being served hydrogen peroxide.
Or think about the scare campaigns which list the ingredients in life-saving medicine in order to make them appear more scary - whereas in fact, many of the ingredients are commonplace and not so scary at all? Scientific words are not exactly the stuff of our daily lexicon, so it makes sense that we’re wary of them.
Misinformation and ambiguity around ingredients affects lots of industries, but skincare and cosmetics can be particularly affected by scaremongering. In fact, many brands will leverage this scaremongering for the sake of more effectively marketing ‘natural’ alternatives.
Maybe you’ve seen some of the items on this list and recoiled in the pharmacy, thinking to yourself ‘sulphates? I could never!’ without having a breeze as to what a sulphate really is. If you have, then you’re definitely not alone.
Are Sulphates Bad For You?
This is going to be a running theme, so be prepared: No, sulphates are not necessarily bad for you.
What Is A Sulphate?
Sulphates are cleansing agents - they’re the part of your product which produces the satisfying foaminess. Their molecular makeup means that one portion cuts through water, and the other half, through oil so they can help to remove dirt from your skin or hair - from anything that needs cleaning, really. Sulphates are surfactants: they attract both oil and water, so they can comprehensively detach both of these from your skin and hair.
Sulphates are also used in domestic cleaning products, thus the fear - but think about it like this, water is also used in cleaning products, and so is sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Being used in cleaning products is not confirmation that the ingredient is dangerous in and of itself.
Should I Avoid Sulphates?
The most common sulphate is sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), which is one which you might recognise as often listed as a deliberately rejected ingredient in many ‘natural’ skincare or beauty products.
There is no particular reason to avoid sulphates unless you have an individual sensitivity towards them. Sometimes they can do their job too well, and can strip away so much oil that your skin might become irritated or reddened, or your hair may become dry and brittle. However, sulphates are likely not massively less drying than similar sulphate-free products. SLS was the subject of a particularly nasty smear campaign during the 1990s, when it was thought to cause cancer. There have been multiple studies since then debunking this myth, but the traction which this misinformation gained was enough to generate feelings of vague unease which have filtered down through the years.
So sulphates shouldn’t send you screaming for the SLS-free section of the shop unless you’ve previously shown sensitivity - listen to your skin!
What Does Carcinogenic Mean?
A carcinogen is any substance which causes carcinogenesis, which is the formation of cancer. We might associate carcinogens with things like cigarettes, alcohol, and radioactive by-products, but we’re still learning all the time about just what causes carcinogenesis. Sulphates took the heat for a long time, but these myths have once again, been debunked.
What on earth are PEGs?
Have you heard of PEGs? These friendly little beasts are scariest because they’re an acronym, if you ask me. "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself”, as Albus Dumbledore would say, and so let’s Call Them By Their Name: polyethylene glycol. PEGs are pretty rad, actually - they have a whole host of uses, and form the basis of lots of skincare products. They’re also used as a surfactant, but they’re used in medicine, industry and almost anywhere you can imagine. They even often form the basis of personal lubricant - so we’ve all got a lot to thank PEGs for.
In skincare, PEGs are often mixed with emollients and other good stuff to create gentle cleansers.
The big fear around PEGs have been that they contain harmful products - but in any cases where this was true, this occurred as a result of the manufacturing process. But these impurities are long-banished, and only the ghosts of this scandal stays with us now. A lot more bad press haunts PEGs as it was originally tested on animals at hundreds of times the strength that it used for human consumption.
Should I Avoid Parabens?
Look. You can’t. Do you know what’s a good example of a paraben? Strawberries. In cosmetic products, parabens work as preservatives, giving your products a longer shelf-life. The issue was raised when a study in 2004 showed the presence of parabens in several breast cancer tumours, and misinformation spread like wildfire as a result of this study, despite issues with the methods used during this study
However, the fact is that the percentage of parabens in preservatives might be quite small. ‘Greenwashing’ is a term which describes eco-consciousness in companies masquerading as superiority for the sake of it - because paraben-free alternatives might contain other ‘harmful’ substances in the place of the humble paraben. Sam Farmer, a cosmetic scientist with his own skincare range, provides tonnes of information on his platforms about the knowledge which he gained during his education, and speaks candidly about his own previous misinformation.
Parabens help us out by keeping mould from growing in our fave products while they hang out in our bathroom cabinets, so they’ve got a lot going for them as well as being safe to use.
Are Acids Dangerous?
Without sounding like a deranged mad scientist - I truly love acids. They’re my go-to when it comes to getting a really good exfoliation. Glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, polyhydroxy acid - these are all commonplace in skincare and, in my opinion, are worth their weight in gold. Many of the effects which we strive to create in recommending products or treatments would be impossible to achieve without the help of our acidic buddies, as long as you’re using the right acids in the right manner.
I would not suggest that people DIY their acids - please do not just lash them onto your skin without a care in the world; they’re still serious business. But consider this: lactic acid already occurs in your body, it’s in your muscles! Glycolic acid comes from sugar cane, salicylic comes from willow, and hyaluronic acid occurs naturally in the body too! Even our skin is naturally slightly acidic (resting healthily at 5.5 on the pH scale). Certainly you wouldn’t want to accidentally tip a beaker of acid over yourself in chemistry class, but as long as you’re applying your acids with care and consideration, they can be your skincare bestie.
We can make anything the subject of fear and confusion if we don’t do our homework. Are sulphates bad for you? Not likely. Take a leaf out of Cinderella’s book, and ‘have courage and be kind’ when it comes to facing your chemical fears. Pro-tip: speaking of Cinderella, pumpkins are really good for your skin. A great source of vitamin A!