Skip to main content

What Is Sulfate-Free Shampoo, and How Do You Use It?

If you can't get a lather going, try this.

The first few times I used a sulfate-free shampoo, I was so confused.

I knew they were better for my hair, of course. Sulfates are harsh detergents that can cause irritation and strip colour. 

But they're also responsible for creating a lather, which helps spreads the product around to get your scalp fully clean. 

And that was my problem—the sulfate-free shampoo wasn't exactly getting the job done, if you know what I mean. I couldn't get the product to coat all of my hair. When I rinsed it out, my scalp just did NOT feel clean!

Needless to say, I didn't understand why anyone would use a sulfate-free shampoo... until now.

I FINALLY figured out why these products weren't working for me!

How to Use a Sulfate-Free Shampoo

If sulfate-free shampoo isn't getting your hair clean, you may not be applying it properly.

I promise, if you follow this process, your sulfate-free shampoo will perform just as well—if not better!—than a sulfate-laden one. Once you figure out how to work with a sulfate-free shampoo, you won't look back. 

This is my preferred technique...

Wet Your Hair Thoroughly

You know how you can lazily start washing your hair with a regular shampoo, even when you're half-asleep and it's not quite all wet yet? That won't fly with a sulfate-free product. Take the time to make sure your hair is completely soaked, as this will enable you to distribute the shampoo evenly on your scalp.

Apply Shampoo to the Back Half of Your Scalp

Squeeze out a tiny amount of shampoo—like the size of a quarter, maybe a little more if you have a lot of hair or if it's very dirty. (Just because it doesn't lather as much doesn't mean you don't need to use more sulfate-free shampoo than regular shampoo.) Now, go in through the underside of your hair and apply the shampoo to the back half of your scalp. It should coat the area from the nape of your neck up to your crown and behind your ears.

Apply More Shampoo to the Front Half of Your Scalp

Squeeze out another quarter-sized amount and do the same thing, but coating the front half of your head, from your front hairline to the crown and down through your sideburns. I find that doing this, dividing my head into two sections (front and back), is the easiest way to get good scalp coverage with sulfate-free shampoo.

Tip: Add more water, not more shampoo. If it doesn't feel like your shampoo is spreading very well, try adding more water before you resort to applying more shampoo. Chances are, the water alone will be enough to help spread it around and produce a gentle foam.

Massage Your Scalp for 3 Minutes

That's right, three! Most of us don't pay enough attention to cleansing our scalps and then wonder why our hairstyles fall flat less than 24 hours later. Use the pads of your fingertips (not your nails) to massage the shampoo around your scalp in circular motions.

Or Leave Your Shampoo in for 3 Minutes

If for some reason, you can't actively massage your scalp for the three minutes, then at least let the shampoo sit on your scalp for that long. I got this tip from celebrity hairstylist Charles Baker Strahan... even just having the shampoo sit on your scalp will give you some cleansing benefits. (Caution: I wouldn't do this with a sulfate product, however! That's just asking for trouble.)

Scroll to Continue

From The Skincare Edit Archives

Or Shampoo Twice

Finally, another option if you really can't wait is to just do a second shampoo. You will find that it spreads and lathers much more easily on the second round, for a more "squeaky-clean" feeling.

Tip: Skip your lengths. Unless your hair is extraordinarily dirty or you use a lot of heavy styling products, you don't need to scrub your lengths with shampoo. Like I said, it's your scalp that is more in need of attention. Simply letting the shampoo run down the lengths as you rinse will be cleansing enough.

Rinse for 1 Minute

As per usual, you want to make sure every trace of shampoo is rinsed out of your hair. A good rule of thumb is to stand under the water (the colder, the better) for at least one full minute. Follow up with your conditioner or vinegar rinse of choice.

The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoos

Three of the best sulfate-free shampoos from World, Briogeo and Kérastase.

Wondering which sulfate-free shampoos are best? Here are a few of my favourites:

Kérastase Aura Botanica Shampoo Bain Micellaire

Kérastase Aura Botanica Shampoo Bain Micellaire

Where to buy: Kérastase • Lookfantastic • Adore Beauty

Briogeo Blossom & Bloom Ginseng + Biotin Volumizing Shampoo

Briogeo Blossom & Bloom Ginseng + Biotin Volumizing Shampoo

Where to buy: NordstromSephora • Cult • B.Glowing • Dermstore • Bloomingdale's • QVCBeauty Bay • SkinCareRx • Lookfantastic • Briogeo

John Masters Organics Shampoo for Normal Hair with Lavender & Rosemary

John Masters Organics Shampoo for Normal Hair with Lavender & Rosemary

Where to buy: • B.Glowing • Well.caLookfantastic • John Masters Organics

Kiehl's Sunflower Color Preserving Shampoo

Where to buy:NordstromSephora • Neiman MarcusBarneys New York • Bloomingdale's • Macy's • Bergdorf Goodman • Saks Fifth Avenue • Hudson's Bay • Lord & Taylor • Kiehl's

World Clean Hair and Skin Cleanser

World Clean Hair and Skin Cleanser

Where to buy: Well.caWorld

If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission. See our Disclosure for more information.