Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are common cleaning ingredients in shampoos. There is lots of debate about the “toxicity” of the ingredients, but that’s a conversation for another time. Those with curly hair should avoid them for one very simple reason: They’re very harsh and drying! 

Curly hair is naturally dryer and more prone to breakage, so you need to pick very delicate cleansers. Think of it like your skin: If your skin was prone to irritation, you’d switch to a gentle cleanser, right? Well the same applies to your strands!

The good news is there are many excellent sulfate-free shampoos on the market. Look for options that are further buffered with hydrating ingredients like botanical oils and butters: excellent options include shea butter, coconut oil, oat oil, and so on. 

Co-washing (or conditioner-washing) can also help keep the hair clean—while also hydrating in the process.

“The idea is to use conditioner, though not just any conditioner, as a replacement for shampoo. An ideal co-wash very gently cleanses the hair using mild surfactants while a typical shampoo uses more concentrated surfactants that really work to deeply cleanse the hair,” says Sunny, owner of Lumiere Vive Salon.

If you decide to incorporate co-washing (an excellent idea), do so alongside the occasional shampoo session for a deeper clean. This can help you avoid buildup and scalp irritation. “It’s very important to deep cleanse your hair; it’s just that many times it may not be necessary as frequently,” notes Sunny. 

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