All of these changes were perceived as positive, but those positives came at a cost, a dollars and cents cost. These new technologies were more complicated to produce resulting in higher formula costs…and that made us bad chemists in the eyes of the bean-counters! Fast forward 20 years and we started to see more and more companies using sulfate-free surfactants among their sulfated blends, but very few relying 100% on sulfate-free technology. The bold few were in the salon industry where they can spend more time with their customer in a professional environment teaching and selling the features of their products. It was here that an even more interesting benefit was noticed, hair color seemed to last longer on those customers who used the sulfate-free products than on those who did not. To try to understand what was happening here, let’s take another step back, but this time into the chemistry and physical interactions of these surfactants.
When hair is immersed in a surfactant solution, a couple of things happen. First, the detergent solution will begin to dissolve the oils and fats that are surrounding the hair. Next, once the coating of debris is removed from the hair shaft, the surfactants, having nothing better to do, look for more fatty material to dissolve; after all, that’s what they’re designed to do. So now they start going after the inter-cuticle lipid materials, which are fatty materials and proteins, and if there are any weaknesses within these boundary lipids, the surfactant solution can begin to penetrate all the way past this defense. The result of this new liquid entering into the hair structure is a breached barrier, helping things enter and leave at a different rate than they did with an intact barrier. Now, the ability of surfactant materials to do this is altered by the strength of these surfactants. The greater the cleansing potential of the surfactant, the greater the micro “inter cuticle” damage they could do to the hair’s barrier.
Sulfated surfactants happen to be very good surfactants, hence their ability to penetrate and swell the hair. The non-sulfated surfactants aren’t quite as strong as their sulfated cousins, so their ability is diminished slightly. The lower the surfactant strength, the lower the ability to attack the barrier. Remember, these are all still good surfactants and all have the power to cleanse, but just at different levels. Furthermore, consumer’s hair is just not that dirty to require super powerful cleansers. And if your hair is really dirty, just remember those three magic words: Lather. Rinse. Repeat!
The Role of Hair Colorants
Now, let’s look at permanent hair colorants. They are applied to the hair under a very high pH situation, allowing for the hair to swell and the cuticle to open so the color can slip in under the cuticle and penetrate deep into the hair structure. The hair is then hit with a lower pH preparation to reclose that cuticle, sealing the color into the hair. That opening and closing of the cuticle puts a strain on the integrity of those inter cuticle barrier lipids, and the hair needs a chance to repair itself. When we start to cleanse the hair with surfactants you can already see the potential train wreck about to happen: Weak barrier, strong detergents, hair color trying to hide behind the cuticle panels and BOOM, hair color won’t last as long.
Add to that the possibility of chemical reactions with the sulfated materials and the hair colorants. In chemistry terms, a sulfate is sulfur reacted with four oxygens, and then attached to the end of a fat-like coconut or palm oil to make them more water-soluble. Sulfur and its associated reacted chemicals are all classified as “oxidizers,” which means when they come in contact with other chemicals that are easily oxidized, like the colors that are used in hair dyes.
Sulfates and sulfur containing materials can change these colors. The reaction in fading color-treated hair does not stop at simple “sulfates,” it’s actually the “sulfur” type chemistries that are causing this oxidizing effect. There are many other “sulfur” or “sulfo” ingredients used in hair care products, even those claiming to be sulfate free. There are sulfonates (a sulfur and three oxygens), there are sulfites (a sulfur and two oxygens), and finally, a class of surfactants based on sulfo-succinate and sulfo-acetates. All of which are reactive oxidizers and will shorten the life span of color treated hair.
Thoughts on Conditioners
And let’s not forget about those conditioner formulas. When we think “sulfate free,” our minds naturally gravitate to shampoo formulas using sulfated surfactants. Yet there are conditioner formulas that may or may not make a “sulfate free” claim, but many use as its primary conditioning ingredient a MethoSULFATE quaternium, which obviously IS a sulfate. The thing that makes this material even more damaging is that it is a positively charged quaternium, which means that it is deposited to the surface of the hair, keeping that sulfate “bio-available” to the hair and the hair color.
Now, do these effects happen immediately? No, of course not, they take days and even weeks to make a noticeable difference. But, in today’s marketplace where everyone is looking for a competitive advantage, we, as intelligent cosmetic chemists, can create smart products that make more sense than just cleaning the hair.
Take advantage of your knowledge base and build products that can make a difference. We have so many great materials to use today, and prices are more competitive than ever, so don’t fall back on the technologies that dinosaurs like me and my generation created—make better formulas and teach the consumer to expect better. Explain your creation to them in a way they can understand and be excited about using.
In an environment where companies have access to all sorts of tools to educate the public on the nuances of hair care products, believe in your story and stick to it—especially when most others do not. It’s a selling point and a point of strength!
VP-business & product development
Dan Beio has 37 years of experience formulating products, managing people and creating projects in the personal care business, working for REWO Chemicals/Emery Industries, Avon, Charles of the Ritz Group, Amway, RITA and JVL Laboratories. Areas of responsibility have included hair care, skin care, makeup, body care, oral care, sun care, fragrances and home care formulation, packaging and process development. He is currently with JVL Laboratories, a contract manufacturing company based in Phenix City, AL.