A Closer Look at Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

Sodium lauryl sulfate can be found in the top ten list of ingredients to avoid by countless “experts” despite the fact that it scores a 100 on the biorenewable carbon index, is naturally sourced from the fatty alcohols of coconut oil, is completely safe in wash off formulas, lets off 0% VOC (won’t vaporize into the atmosphere), is readily biodegradable, and is EO/PO free (contains no Ethylene Oxide/Propylene Oxide Copolymer).  By all green standards sodium lauryl sulfate is the perfect ingredient but many self proclaimed watch-dogs in the industry claim otherwise.  

The Sodium Lauryl Sulfate molecule has one end that is polar and water-soluble and another end that is non-polar and organic-soluble.  Sodium lauryl sulfate is a wetting agent and foaming agent that is designed for wash-off products only.  If you are finding them in your leave-on products, discard those products.

Some companies do use sodium lauryl sulfate in leave-on products because it gives a pearlescent appearance and fluffy whipped look to a product. In leave-on products, it is an irritant and can cause problems. I have found sodium lauryl sulfate in lotions, crèmes, foundations, sunscreens, and soufflés.

Read labels, read labels, read labels, and avoid this ingredient in leave-on products. The truth is that in wash-off products sodium lauryl sulfate is not a problem. It is commonly used in shampoo, shower gel, and toothpaste.

There are thousands of “no-sulfate” products available in all categories.  At Essential Wholesale we responded to customer demand and have dozens of them ourselves. It is easy to find “no-sulfate” shampoo, shower gel, and even toothpaste.  But the fact does remain that SLS is a perfectly safe, effective, and totally green option among the plethora of surfactants available on the market.

  • http://www.danstabulleblog.blogspot.com Tvine

    The world has demonised SLS for so long that a clarification of this kind does not have its place right now, SLS is the evil ingredient and apparently must be avoided at all cost. Its a shame because its a great ingredient in shampoos and shower gels.

  • tessamckay

    Love this! I've read the same information elsewhere but not presented so concisely and clearly. Would it be okay to link to this article from my blog and/or website?

  • cactusandivy

    tessamckay –

    Thank you for your comments. Personal Care Truth is very fortunate to have Kayla as an expert. She, like all the others, are such a wealth of information and fabulous people to boot!

    You are most welcome to link back to this article, URL http://personalcaretruth.com/2010/05/a-closer-l

  • cactusandivy

    Tvine –

    It is a shame SLS has been demonized and I believe it is because of the lack of definition it has been given. Kayla did a fabulous job explaining SLS and giving meaning to why it is so fabulous in shampoo but not made for leave in products.

    Education is the key in understanding anything. That's why Personal Care Truth was created.

  • Kurt

    If there are alternatives that are not dangerous (be it in leave-on or rinse off products), why not simply replace SLS? I'm not interested in fear mongering either but I do think if we have safer surfactants then why not simply use those?

    SLS is not “the perfect ingredient” or there wouldn't be any disclaimer in the article. Its clear where we shouldn't find it, but an explanation of why it shouldn't be in leave-in products would make this article more complete. Instead, the defense of an arguably safe (depending on its use) product takes precedent.

  • http://twitter.com/essentialU Kayla Fioravanti

    There are dozens of other ingredients that act as primary surfactants which is why there are so many Sulfate Free shampoos and shower gels on the market. The price is higher for most of them and consumers aren't always willing to pay the higher price. Why not leave it in the hands of consumers to decide what priorities are most important to them? Sometimes the perfectly green and safe ingredient of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate fits their pocket book better than another safe ingredient.

  • Kurt

    I'm all in favour of leaving consumers to make their own informed choices, but any poll would show just how many people have even heard of SLS. How they can possibly make an informed decision? If they haven't heard of it, then we can't expect them to be able to understand why it may (or may not, depending on risk tolerance) be worth the price. Consumers have the final word and thats why I appreciate sites like this one, which contribute to a better informed and more responsible consumer society. But lets not just preach the opposite of SkinDeep and call that science. There's a bit more to consumer logic than that.

    Again, I'll mention that SLS isn't perfect. Its great and all, but there are applications that it is being used for even though there are safer (and arguably better) ingredients. You yourself discouraged people from buying those types of products.

  • http://www.coffeehousesuds.com T.A.

    What about SLSA (Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate)? I've read that it's not as harsh as SLS. Does it get the same bad rap?

    • Philippe Papadimitriou

      Sulfoacetates and sulfosuccinates are sold as milder alternatives compared to sulfates. They indeed are “milder”, but surfactants are surfactants and the very nature of surfactants (with both lipophilic and hydrophilic parts in the structure – see above) somehow make them irritant molecules, because they have the ability to interact with biological membranes.

      At the normal dosage use in cosmetics, particularly rinse off products, the irritancy is kept to a minimum and no itching or any other adverse reaction should be perceived. Allergies are known, but they are the exception.

  • http://twitter.com/essentialU Kayla Fioravanti

    From a chemical standpoint, sodium lauryl sulfoacetate is a very unique surfactant. It demonstrates outstanding performance in cleansing, foaming, wetting, viscosity building, mildness and emulsification. It is an excellent surfactant for any water hardness and is biodegradable making it a versatile ingredient in cosmetic formulation. Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate was specifically developed to be mild to the skin. It is commonly the surfactant of choice for formulators developing products that are designed for those who have sensitivity to other soaps. The sodium lauryl sulfoacetate molecule is a valuable and unique molecule that has been in use for over 30 years in cosmetics.

    Some common characteristics of sodium lauryl sulfoacetate are that it is relatively non-hygroscopic (it does not absorb or retain moisture from the air) and is resistant to hydrolysis (it does not react with water to produce other compounds) even at high temperatures. It is especially stable at the common cosmetic pH range of 5.5 to 7.8. Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate is biodegradable and has shown in laboratory studies to undergo both primary and ultimate biodegradation. This product has a good toxicological profile which makes it an ingredient of choice for dentifrice (toothpastes), shampoos, cleansing creams, sensitive skin soap bars and shower gels. To add to its track record, sodium lauryl sulfoacetate is registered in the United States, Japan, Canada, and Australia and is compliant with the EU regulations.

    The safety and mildness of sodium lauryl sulfoacetate lies in the absence of a sulfate ion head, which is commonly found in many other surfactants. The sulfate ion, which originates in sulfuric acid, is replaced with the more stable sulfonated ester. This sulfate free surfactant is made with lauryl alcohol, derived from palm kernel oil, which is then condensed with a sulfonated form of acetic acid, or vinegar. It is this charged sulfonated acetate group which gives this molecule its mild surfactant properties.

    It is a primary/secondary surfactant.

  • amlgal

    I’ve switched to non-SLS toothpastes in order to combat lifelong problems with canker sores, and for me the improvement from the change has been nothing less than miraculous. So in my case it’s personal body chemistry reaction to SLS and I need to avoid it in oral care….doesn’t mean that SLS is inherently evil for everyone or in all applications. (And yes, non-SLS toothpastes are definitely more expensive.)

  • Anne

    Hi Kayla, I’m afraid you haven’t quite got your facts right there. Sodium lauryl sulfate can be produced from palm oil and it is known as the coconut surfactant. However it is by no means a natural product. It is contaminated with 1,4 dioxane. This is a cancer causing by-product of the ethoxylation process, a process that makes otherwise harsh ingredients gentle. However, because it is not an original ingredient, this by-product is not listed on the ingredient list. The Environmental Working Group gives SLS a moderate hazard rating for cancer, organ system toxicity and others. So it’s not the worst, but not the best.

    • Dene Godfrey

      Hi Anne, I am afraid that it is you who have not got your facts right! You are confusing sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) with sodium laureth sulphate (SLES). There is no ethoxylation stage in the manufacture of SLS, and no 1,4-dioxane contamination. In any case, the levels of 1,4-dioxane present in SLES are not high enough to pose a significant risk to human health. I would politely suggest that you don’t bother giving any credence to the EWG Skin Deep database as it is useless in terms of assessing the safety of cosmetic products, or ingredients. See http://personalcaretruth.com/2010/05/skin-deep-scratching-below-the-surface/

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