“Lather, rinse, repeat.” That was yesterday’s shampoo. But rumor had it that the chief lathering agent — sodium lauryl sulfate — caused cancer, or at least frizzy hair and dull locks. Even after the rumors were put to rest, plenty of natural alternatives leave out this chemical. There’s an enthusiastic market for these products, with hopes of softer curls and vivid, longer lasting color.

The Sulfate Debate

Worries about sodium lauryl sulfate, a detergent also used in cleaning products, toothpaste and even candy, surfaced in the 1990s and continued despite being debunked on Snopes.com and in many news reports. The American Cancer Society says on its website that SLS is an irritant, but not a carcinogen, and traces the cancer rumor to multilevel marketers trying to sell sulfate-free products. Meanwhile, websites that cater to women with curly hair often give SLS a bad review for drying, frying and dulling the locks. A sulfate-free campaign caught on, and manufacturers catered to it with lower-suds products that don’t contain SLS.

Higher-Cost Low Suds

Huffington Post recommends, among others, Living Proof Restore Shampoo; Moroccanoil Moisture Repair Shampoo; Bumble and Bumble Color Minded Sulfate Free Shampoo; Ouidad Climate Control DeFrizzing Shampoo; Fekkai Essential Shea Shampoo; and Carol’s Daughter Black Vanilla Moisturizing Sulfate Free Shampoo. “Marie Claire” suggests Wen’s Summer Mango Coconut conditioner — rather than shampoo — as a less drying hair-washing alternative. As of summer 2014, most cost $20 to $30, although a few cost less.

Top Drugstore Deals

Less expensive brands quickly took up the sulfate-free banner, and these are available in drugstores, chain stores and beauty supply stores. L’Oreal’s EverCreme and EverPure are widely recommended. Organix Coconut Milk Shampoo; Aveeno Pure Renewal; Aubrey Organics White Camellia Ultra-Smoothing Shampoo; and Burt’s Bees More Moisture Raspberry & Brazil Nut Shampoo all cost less than $12 as of 2014. “Lucky” magazine tried Curls Unleashed Lavish in Lather Sulfate-Free Shampoo, and said it did, in fact, have plenty of lather, which many sulfate-free products do not.

When Less Is More

Some health-conscious bloggers took the chemical-free campaign a step further, avoiding shampoo altogether and setting off a “no ‘poo” movement. One, cited on Huffington Post, said she hadn’t washed her hair in five years. Less extreme measures: You can make your own. “Good Housekeeping” recommends 50-50 white vinegar and water, or 1 tablespoon baking soda and 2 tablespoons water. Olive oil, the author says, makes a fine conditioner.