Written by Lisa Truesdale. Reviewed by cleaning expert Sean Busch. Medically reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Julie Jackson, MD, FAAD.
In the 1930s, the invention of sulfates revolutionized the personal care and household cleaning industries. Recognized for their satisfyingly sudsy lather, these chemicals are effective at removing dirt and oil from a wide variety of surfaces.
In recent years, however, discerning consumers have questioned the safety of sulfates. Why are manufacturers turning to “sulfate-free” solutions – and is the negative hype surrounding sulfates deserved?
What Are Sulfates?
Sulfates are detergents made of sulfur-containing mineral salts. Derived from either petroleum-based or plant-based sources, they’re cheap for companies to obtain and create rich lather that consumers look for in shampoos and soaps.
Many consumer product companies add sulfates to household cleaning products like laundry detergent, dish soap, carpet cleaner, and all-purpose cleaner. They’re also commonly found in personal care products like shampoo, body wash, shaving cream, and toothpaste.
The most commonly-used sulfate compounds are:
- sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
- sodium laureth sulfate (e.g. SLES, sodium lauryl ether sulfate)
- ammonium laureth sulfate (ALS)
- sodium stearyl sulfate
- sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (SLSA)
- sodium coco sulfate
How Do Sulfates Work?
Sulfates are surfactants, which means they lower the surface tension of water so oil, dirt, and grime can mix with it more easily. One side of the molecule attaches to oil while the other side attaches to water. This helps cleaning products lift, dissolve, and rinse dirt and grease away.
What Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)?
SLS is the best-known and most commonly-used sulfate. It’s inexpensive and can be derived from a number of sources including petroleum, coconut oil, and even palm oil.
Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) the Same as Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)?
Although they sound similar – and are often used in the same types of products – SLS and SLES are two separate surfactants. In fact, they have different chemical formulas:
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SLES is actually derived from SLS through a chemical reaction called ethoxylation, where ethylene oxide is introduced to make it less drying and more gentle than SLS. The problem is that ethoxylation can create trace amounts of 1,4- dioxane.
The FDA acknowledges 1,4- dioxane as a possible carcinogen, and since the 1980’s, has monitored the risks of 1,4- dioxane and its inclusion in certain consumer goods. The agency states that if it finds its presence in cosmetics poses a health hazard, they will take steps to regulate its use and notify the public accordingly.
Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) Safe?
There’s a great deal of controversy around the use of SLS and other sulfates. For every report that claims it’s harmful, there’s another that says the opposite.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has detailed several warnings about SLS, reporting that it is harmful if swallowed and may cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation. It’s also considered toxic to aquatic life when rinsed down the drain.
In a comprehensive 2015 report, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that, although “years of anti-SLS campaigns have led to consumer concerns and confusion regarding the safety of SLS,” sodium lauryl sulfate is not a danger to human health – when formulated correctly.With such conflicting reports, it’s unsurprising that consumers are confused.
Is SLS Good for Skin?
According to the NIH report, sodium lauryl sulfate concentrations of more than 2% can cause skin irritation. The amount of SLS in common household cleaning products varies widely, from 1% to 30%. In personal care products (like bubble baths and body washes), SLS concentrations can range even higher.
SLS is frequently used in body washes, shaving creams, and facial cleansers because it’s effective at removing dirt and grease. But there’s a tradeoff, as explained by dermatologist Dr. Julie Jackson, MD, FAAD: “To remove the dirt and grease, SLS also strips away some of the natural moisturizing oils of the skin.”Not only are natural moisturizing oils removed from the skin with surfactants like SLS, but some exploratory research also indicated exposure to a high concentration of SLS caused skin barrier disruption related to altered maturation of the skin. However, more work needs to be done to determine what the effects are of repeated low-dose exposure to SLS, as seen in daily life.
Is SLS Safe for Hair?
Because it creates rich foam that is easily rinsed, SLS is commonly used in shampoos and other personal care products. But given that it is such a powerful cleanser, it can easily remove too much of the natural sebum on the scalp, causing your hair to feel harsh and dry.
Is SLS Bad for the Environment?
The World Health Organization warns that SLS should not be allowed to enter the environment in its raw form, as it can be toxic to aquatic life.
Although pure, undiluted SLS is moderately toxic to aquatic life, what enters the water stream from consumer products (shampoos, soaps, and detergents) is a significantly diluted form of SLS that can be non-toxic because of its low concentration. That being said, the toxicity of SLS depends on a number of factors, including the marine species, water hardness, and water temperature. And it has been suggested that chronic toxicity of SLS can also occur at low concentrations.
Why Puracy Doesn’t Use SLS or Other Sulfates
Puracy was founded upon the belief that cleaning and personal care products should always be completely safe for people, pets, AND the environment. After extensively considering this issue, we believe SLS and its sulfate cousins contribute to skin irritation and unnecessary dryness, especially for people with sensitive skin. That’s why we vow never to use SLS, sulfates, or any other questionable ingredients in our products.
Why expose your family to known skin irritants and ingredients that could harm the environment? There are better options, and our proprietary blends of naturally-sourced personal care products work for all skin and hair types, offering gentle cleansing without drying.
Coco Glycinate: The Gentlest Natural Surfactant
We’ve worked hard to source a safer, more natural alternative to sodium lauryl sulfate and are currently one of only a handful of companies to utilize coco glycinate. Derived from coconut fatty acids and the amino acid glycine, coco glycinate produces the satisfying lather in Puracy Natural Body Wash and other foaming body care products.
Best of all, our pH-balanced products won’t disrupt the important stratum corneum layer of the skin, leaving you – and your family – feeling clean and moisturized (without dryness and irritation).
The Puracy Promise
We promise that we’ll never use harsh, questionable ingredients like SLS, dimethicone, and phthalates in any of our products. Puracy was founded on full transparency (no exaggerations or omissions), so you’ll never have to wonder if our products are safe for your family and your home – they are and always will be.
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