What do you mean by “sulfate-free”?
Of course, you don’t know. But many people still try to get skin care products that are sulfate-free, even when they have no idea what it means. And that matters.
Are we, humans, sulfate-free? Of course not. Sulfur is such an important element, we could not live without it. No living being can live without sulfur and sulfate is just one of the forms that sulfur will take as it cycles through nature.
Where does this “sulfate-free” thing come from, then? The usual way: people who know too little but think they know a lot.
It happens that a detergent used for dishwashing and in shampoos and bubble baths, sodium lauryl sulfate, it relatively harsh. What does this mean? It is very good at removing lipids (fats) from everything, including removing the fat from the bacon you cooked this morning from your plate and silverware, and your shirt and, yes, your skin. This does not mean that you have to be scared of it, just that you have to be aware of how you use it.
The lipids in your skin are important because they are an essential component of what makes the skin barrier that prevents your body from losing water and prevents microbes and pollutants from entering. It makes more sense to try to guard the lipids that naturally make up your epidermis than it is to remove them and then replace them with plant oils and butters, however natural they may be. The “replacements” will not have the same chemical composition and will never get into the physical location that the original skin lipids occupied.
The message here is: be aware that sodium lauryl sulfate and other chemicals may be harsh on your skin, but don’t think that because “sulfate” is in an ingredient list you should avoid a product. Let me give you some examples: zinc sulfate, manganese sulfate, sodium chondroitin sulfate, dermatan sulfate, magnesium sulfate. Every time there is a need for a salt, sulfate may be in there, and your body will happily use it in all kinds of activities, ending up in your proteins as methionine and cysteine and a peptide vital for your body: glutathione.