Written by Tenley Haraldson.
Reviewed by cleaning expert Sean Busch.
Medically reviewed by board-certified dermatologist,
Dr. Julie Jackson, MD, FAAD.
First developed in the 1930s, sulfates are effective cleaning ingredients that easily remove dirt and oil from a wide variety of surfaces. In recent years, consumers have questioned the safety of sulfates.
Why are so many manufacturers turning to “sulfate-free” solutions – and is the negative hype surrounding sulfates warranted?
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, meaning that 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 impurities away.
What Is 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 SLS the Same as SLES?
Although they sound similar – and they’re often used in the same types of products – SLS and SLES are two separate surfactants with two different chemical formulas
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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.
Are There Potential Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Dangers?
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. With such conflicting reports, it’s unsurprising that many consumers are unsure what to think about SLS safety.
The World Health Organization (WHO), however, has detailed several warnings about SLS. It reports that SLS can be harmful if swallowed and may cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation.
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.
Is SLS Toxic to Aquatic Life?
The WHO also warns that SLS should not be allowed to enter the environment in its raw form, as it can be toxic to aquatic life. While most dilutions of SLS aren’t necessarily toxic, this is dependent on the marine species, water hardness, and water temperature.
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. It has been suggested that chronic toxicity of SLS can also occur at low concentrations.
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.
You’ll often find sodium lauryl sulfate in body wash, shaving cream, and face wash 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 do surfactants like SLS remove natural moisturizing oils from the skin, but some exploratory research also indicates that exposure to a high concentration of SLS can cause skin barrier disruption related to altered maturation of the skin.
However, more work needs to be done to determine the effects of repeated, low-dose exposure to SLS.
Is SLS Good for Hair?
Because it creates rich foam that’s easily rinsed away, SLS is commonly used in shampoos and other personal care products. But given that it’s such a powerful cleanser, SLS can easily remove too much of the natural sebum on the scalp, causing hair to feel harsh and dry.
Why Puracy Doesn’t Use Sulfates
We’re currently one of a handful of companies to utilize coco glycinate, a natural sodium lauryl sulfate alternative that produces the satisfying lather in our Natural Body Wash and other foaming body care products.
Puracy was founded upon the belief that cleaning and personal care products should always consider the health of people, pets, and the environment. There’s simply no reason for us to risk using SLS, sulfates, or any other questionable ingredients in our products.
And because Puracy was founded on full transparency, you’ll never have to wonder whether our products are safe for your family and your home – they are and always will be.