Ammonium lauryl sulfate in Shampoos and why you should avoid it

After decades in the hair business as a professional, it almost seems like a curse word, Ammonium lauryl sulfate. But when we really look at what shampoo is supposed to do, “remove dirt, pollutants and oils from our hair” we really only had a few choices.

Read: Best Natural Shampoos to Use.

You see, what Ammonium lauryl sulfate is is an anionic surfactant. I know most people have no idea what that means, no worries, neither did I. What it actually does is lower the surface tension of water so the water is able to spread more easily. Surfactants can also be referred to as wetting agents, they make water “wetter”. Ammonium lauryl sulfate is added to products as a foaming agent and as a detergent. Ammonium lauryl sulfate is used in many great shampoos because of what it can do and its ability to be used in hard water as well. When ammonium lauryl sulfate is reacted with ethylene oxide, the result is the larger molecule ammonium laureth sulfate.

This is what you might want to see in some of the better shampoos, and here is why:

Because this is a larger molecule and it has the same detergent and surfactant qualities, it will not be able to penetrate the hair as easily. You may find this ingredient in more of the “color safe” shampoos. You can also recognize it by its full name “ammonium lauryl ether sulfate”.

Here is where manufacturers try to become politically correct and change up to different compounds, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is the same compound and has the same uses, but the ammonium group has been replaced with a sodium atom. When speaking to a chemist this may or may not have advantages. What I want to point out is that the purpose of removing oils and pollutants from our hair has not changed, but now we have added silicons and other forms of vinyls into products thus making the demands of our detergent based shampoos even greater. Now you have an idea of what the primary ingredient is after water.

Everything to do with shampoo is about protecting the cuticle layer of the hair. These later look similar to the scales of a fish and grow down the hair shaft on the surface of the hair. This surface is called the cuticle.

Hair is acidic but dirt and oils, along with modern hair styling products, get into and under these cuticle layers.

Alkaline solutions help raise the cuticle so they stand up during the washing process of the hair. The challenge is that you really do not want the cuticle to stand up too much because they are designed to protect the internal area of the hair as well as keeping the artificial and natural pigments in the hair shaft. The conditioning process really helps in making sure your cuticle gets set down and no longer feels rough.

Many of the shampoos available today you will find are made slightly acidic. The idea is to not be too caustic to the hair during the shampooing process but still get the job done. Today it is quite common to find ingredients like citric acid in some of the better shampoos. There are also now many other natural ingredients that will do the same thing but make you feel better when you reed the ingredients list.

The idea is still the same, keep the cuticle laying flat. That cuticle needs to finish the process closed and smooth. Obviously, when the shampoo mixes with the pH in water it becomes less acidic (water is neutral and dirt tends to be alkaline). So buffers are added to help balance this out. Sodium citrate is one of those buffering agents.

Now you have a better understanding of why things are there and what they are really doing in your shampoo.

Each ingredient that is found in shampoo has a cost. Certain ingredients are able to be found but what could change is the type of quality that ingredient represents. Even the slightest change in the pH of an ingredient will change the cost and performance of that ingredient. Just like there are many different qualities of fine wines, so it goes with shampoos and conditioners. The best shampoos and conditioners have the best ingredients that work in the best combination towards the goal.

People ask me all the time if there is a difference, YEAH there is. I drive Jaguars and Porsches, so I am picky where I buy my gas because I own the car. I am picky and always have been about shampoo, conditioner and hair products in general. Are there companies that will make something smell great, lather wonderfully and leave a nice waxy finish on your hair for little money, YES THERE ARE.

I am not saying anything is wrong but if people say “There really is no difference.” they are truly ignorant.

You will notice the difference over time. Sometimes in the first week, but over time for sure. Remember, smoking one cigarette will not necessarily kill you, but how will your lungs look after a year? So goes your hair. The best medicine here is prevention. Find something good, try a few things and really understand the difference and what results you are looking for.

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