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Know the Difference: Sulfites vs. Sulfates

If you‘ve perused the ingredients list on the back of any food or household product, you know it’s the best way to practice the “sound-it-out” reading skills you learned in grade school. The longer you can go without having to sound something out, the better that product usually is for you. “Sulfite” and “sulfate” aren’t too hard to pronounce and likewise, they probably aren’t the most dangerous ingredients on the list (spoiler alert). But they are commonly found in just about everything in your home, so understanding how they are different and what they do is valuable information indeed.

Jerry Snow, MD, specializes in medical toxicology at Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix. He helped define the two ingredients and laid out any possible concerns.

Should I eat sulfites?

You’ve likely been lectured—or lectured someone you know—about preservatives. Without them our food would spoil before it left the shelves. Because of them, our foods are stuffed with added chemicals. “Sulfites are preservatives which keep food from spoiling and prevent discoloration,” explained Dr. Snow. “Foods such as dried fruits, salad, baked goods, condiments and certain juices contain sulfites.” Interestingly, sulfites can be added to food or they can occur naturally during the fermentation process. One common item that contains sulfite is wine. As the ingredients ferment, a byproduct of that process is the creation of sulfites. Without this naturally occurring preservative, that 100-year-old vintage you’re saving for a special occasion won’t taste very special at all.

Dr. Snow explained that while sulfites don’t generally need to be avoided, there are people who have allergies or sensitivities. Of course, these people should seek out sulfite-free options where they can. While reactions will be mild for most people with sensitivities, there is a very small population of people that could experience something more severe. In addition to foods, you may find sulfites in cosmetics, perfumes and in many medicines. If you have a known allergy, communicate that need to your doctor.

What household products contain sulfates?

Imagine this, you’re washing your hair and no matter how much you lather, the bubbles just don’t come. Without the “evidence” of an effective shampoo, you may wonder how clean you actually are. In fact, soaps didn’t always create a lather, and that’s because they didn’t always include sulfates as an ingredient. Today, sulfates are found in shampoos, hand soaps, body washes, toothpastes and other home products. They help to strip oils and clean your hair and body. But this can be harmful in some cases.

Like sulfites, Dr. Snow explains that most people can use products containing sulfates without consequence. However, it is possible to have a sensitivity to sulfates, which could lead to redness, itching, irritation and/or rash on your skin.

What should I do?

It’s a good idea to read the labels. Not just for the phonetics lesson, but to understand what you are eating and using on your body. There are many ingredients you should avoid or limit wherever you can. As Dr. Snow explained, sulfites and sulfates are generally harmless for those without an allergy. If you have noticed that you feel ill or are experiencing other symptoms, but you don’t know the cause, set up an appointment with your doctor to begin investigating the source of your discomfort. It’s possible that sulfites and sulfates are at the root of your issue.

Are you curious about other popular ingredients added to items found in your daily life? Check out these articles to learn more:

Allergy and Immunology Food Allergies Nutrition