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When a Sulfate Isn't a Sulfate Part I

When a Sulfate Isn't a Sulfate Part I

Posted by Michele Zagorski on 17th Jul 2015

Sulfate.  It's a loaded word.  But, what exactly does it mean?

When you hear the word 'sulfate' what's the first thing you think of?  Is it positive or negative?  Dangerous?  

Sulfates have gotten such a bad rep that manufacturers are putting the words 'SULFATE-FREE' on labels for marketing purposes.  But, does that mean it's actually a safer, higher quality product?

Not necessarily.

Sometimes you will see products with 'SULFATE-FREE' on the front of the container, but the word 'sulfate' on the ingredients list. So, what gives?  Are they lying?  

Yes, and no.

Not all sulfates are created equal, and the poor word has been maligned and misused.  When you see the words 'sulfate-free', it refers to a specific kind of sulfate known as surfactants, and not even all surfactants, but chemically contaminated, harsher surfactants.  It's kind of like everyone calling every brand of facial tissue 'Kleenex', or every bandage strip a 'Band-Aid'.  There are all kinds of tissues and bandages out there, but some are much better than others.  So, when a company puts 'sulfate-free' on a label, they mean the bad sulfates, the ones associated with cancer and toxins, but not necessarily all sulfates.

There are sulfates that, while technically still a sulfate, are beneficial.  For example, magnesium sulfate.  If you read that word on an ingredient label, would you automatically put it back on the shelf? Magnesium sulfate is the chemical name for epsom salt, which is naturally made up of magnesium, sulfer, and oxygen. How about calcium sulfate? That's gypsum, a natural mineral that is mined and used to make things like blackboard chalk and plaster.  All things are made up of chemicals, but there are good chemicals, harmful chemicals, and everything in between.

So, you see that not all sulfates are sulfates.

Confusing, I know, but stay with me here.

A little chemistry will help to clear things up.


What the heck is a sulfate, really?

When you see the word sulfate, it just means a molecule is combined either naturally or through a process(called sulfation) with sulfer.  This makes it soluble, or able to be dissolved in water.  

That's it.  

That, my dear, is the whole kit and caboodle of a sulfate.  Kind of anti-climactic, huh?

In fact, Physical Renewal says:

"Sulfates are an enormous group of chemicals that contain the element sulfur. The human body contains dozens of sulfate compounds, and there are hundreds of sulfates in a natural foods diet. You cannot be allergic to sulfur, as it is a natural part of every cell in your body."

"Well," you say, "that doesn't sound so bad!  What's all the hubbub about?"

We'll get into that next week....