Why The Ordinary Is Coming Out as Pro Sulphate

The Ordinary hair care is coming — and it’s full of sulphates.

On Feb. 22, the brand, best known for its $7 serums and alpha hydroxy exfoliating peels, will introduce a new collection of hair care products, including a shampoo (for hair and body), conditioner, both $8, and a $12.80 scalp treatment, to be sold at The Ordinary’s stores and website, as well as Sephora and Ulta Beauty. (It already sells a hair serum, which debuted in 2018, and more hair products are set to come next year.)

As is The Ordinary’s signature, the products are named after an active or hero ingredient—in the shampoo’s case, the Sulphate 4% Cleanser shampoo. With that name, the brand is highlighting its inclusion of a controversial ingredient banned by beauty retailer Credo and Sephora’s “Clean at Sephora” program. Despite decades of use as a cleansing and foaming agent found in personal care products like shampoo, toothpaste and face and body wash, sulphates got a bad rap as “clean” beauty became mainstream. Existing and new entrants to hair care often advertise their shampoos as “sulphate-free” — and better than alternatives made with sulphates.

Except there’s nothing wrong with sulphates in shampoo, according to chemists, product formulators and doctors. Rather, they say, when used at low concentrations, sulphates are one of the most effective, affordable ingredients when it comes to cleansing hair and achieving an optimal lather. They are not an allergen, hormone disruptor or carcinogen.

With this approach to hair care, The Ordinary hopes to spark a change in the “clean” beauty conversation. That discourse, which many brands from legacy to upstarts have embraced, has conditioned consumers to think ingredients like sulphates, parabens, silicones, petroleum jelly and more could be unsafe or toxic.

Allen Sha, chemist and founder of Sha Consulting Group, a firm that specializes in product development for beauty and personal care brands, called shampoo with sulphates a good choice “if you have a healthy skin barrier, your skin isn’t overly sensitive and you ‘re looking for a cost effective product. (Sha Consulting Group does not work with The Ordinary.)

Sha said an average shampoo at a drugstore could contain from 10 percent to over 20 percent sulphates. The Ordinary’s formula contains four percent.

“There are so many ingredients that are quick to get a bad reputation without someone actually looking at how they work. Things go viral quickly and misinformation gets spread, particularly on social [media],” Nicola Kilner, co-founder and chief executive officer of Deciem, parent company of The Ordinary, told BoF. Last year, The Estée Lauder Companies took a majority stake in Deciem, valuing it at $2.2 billion, and plans to acquire it entirely by 2024.

“Ultimately, sulphates are the best way to clean hair, and what’s been wrong is the levels they have been used at,” Kilner said. “Everyone is trying to avoid things, rather than just looking at, ‘How can we actually use this ingredient? What are the benefits?’”

What’s the Deal With Sulphates?

Sulphates are good cleansers because they “break apart grease,” according to said Dr Whitney Bowe, a New York-based dermatologist.

“[They] give you that clean feeling that you’re looking for,” she said.

In personal care, the most commonly used sulphates are sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulphate (SLES). The latter, a derivative of SLS, tends to be gentler, according to Bowe, although, when used at too high of a concentration, either could compromise the skin barrier and irritate or dry the scalp.

Sulphates are often associated with household cleaning products, where they make up 20 to 30 percent or more of a formula, which hasn’t helped the ingredient’s reputation. But sulphates in household cleaning items don’t have to meet the same safety requirements as ones used in cosmetics, said Sha.

“Anything that has possible negative press immediately just goes into the ‘no no’ list,” he said of ingredients like sulphates and parabens. “The FDA has concluded that parabens are safe, after conducting multiple safety assessments from 1984 to 2005.”

The backlash against sulphates has been so strong that some retailers have prohibited them entirely — or at the very least, in their “clean” sections. The Ordinary’s hair care, for example, won’t be a part of “Clean at Sephora” because the program bans sulphates, a spokesperson for Sephora confirmed.

But for most consumers, the efficaciousness of a shampoo “typically ranks number one” when it comes to hair care, in particular, said Jessica Phillips, vice president of merchandising at Ulta Beauty, which will only launch The Ordinary’s shampoo and conditioner to start. The retailer’s “Conscious Beauty at Ulta Beauty” section doesn’t include sulphates on its “made without” list.

“There’s a lot of different things that come into play in terms of conscious beauty or not,” Phillips continued. “This level of cleansing, the surfactants which we’re getting at with sulphates, a lot of people need some surfactants and some sulphates for them to see that performance.”

What’s Next for Clean Beauty?

The public and the beauty industry itself is slowly starting to question the meaning of “clean,” which has no clear-cut definition besides the arbitrary parameters brands and retailers set, some stricter than others.

Increasingly, dermatologists and experts are using their social media followings to dispel skin care “myths” perpetuated by brands claiming to sell “clean beauty.”

“What’s ‘clean’ to Sephora is not what’s clean to Credo is not what’s clean to Follain is not what’s clean to Target,” Dr Bowe said. “Different brands will use it differently.”

What started as a good thing — encouraging brands to be more forthcoming about ingredients and fostering dialogue around sustainability and eco-friendly sourcing — became a “slippery slope,” for Dr Bowe.

“It’s the easiest way to sell a product, create an enemy or be the hero,” said Charlotte Parlermino, influencer and co-founder of Dieux, a skin care line that touts itself as not being “clean.”

Sha predicts a rise of non-clean beauty brands in the next two to three years.

“How much more clean can you get before you can’t have anything in your products?” said Sha. “If the list continues to grow, you won’t have anything that’s effective. It will just be water and blueberry extract.”

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