Sulfates in personal care products

By March 3, 2019 Blog

What are sulfates?

Shower gels, soaps, shampoos and cleaning products in our bathroom and kitchen cupboards are everyday items that we used. More likely than not they contain synthetic detergents. In the ingredient label you will see the likes of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ammonium laureth sulfate and myreth sulfate. (Sulfate is a salt that forms when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical.

[Note: Sodium lauryl sulfate is also known as: Sodium dodecyl sulfate, laurel sodium sulfate, sodium n-Dodecyl sulfate, laurel sulfate salt]

Why are sulfates used in shampoos and shower gels?

There are two main reasons why sulfates are such popular ingredients in shampoos and shower gels. Firstly, they are cheap as they are produced synthetically, making them ideal for low-cost brands. Secondly, they are very effective cleansing agents and create lots of foam when mixed with water.

Where are sulfates found?

The ingredients SLS and SLES are most commonly found in personal products and cleaning agents such as:

  • liquid hand soap
  • shampoos
  • shower gels
  • laundry detergents
  • dish detergents
  • toothpaste
  • bath bombs

What are the effects of sulfates?

SLS and SLES can irritate eyes, skin, and lungs, especially with long-term use. Hence it is not surprising then that it can cause scalp problems when frequently applied as part of a shampoo. Its irritating effects can create an itchy, flaky scalp.  It is recognised as being one of the most irritating of the foaming agents used in shampoos.

For people with sensitive skin, sulfates may also clog pores and cause acne. It may make eczema worse.

Consider what the International Journal of Toxicology has to say about SLS:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate appears to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin. In products intended for prolonged contact with skin, concentrations should not exceed 1%.

It is believed that the percentage of SLS found in many shampoos for instance can exceed these recommendations by a considerable amount. In some cases levels have been reported as high as 25% and more. It’s also inevitable that shampoo will occasionally get in our eyes when washing our hair and that can’t easily be rinsed away. Considering the corrosive nature of SLS and the sensitivity of our eyes it would be logical to assume that SLS could negatively affect our eyes, especially in children where development is still occurring.

SLS and Animal Testing

[Note: SLS is used as a laboratory standard for irritating skin due to its ability to penetrate and damage the skin barrier]

It should be noted that cosmetics containing Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or Sodium Laureth Sulfate may have undergone animal testing at some stage. The solution (e.g. a percentage of SLS combined with accompanying ingredients) is sometimes dispersed directly into the subject’s eyes.

Evidence of this can be seen at the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) website. Here are two excerpts from a white paper published on the site:

The Panel wishes to point out that these two ingredients produce eye and/or skin irritation in experimental animals and in some human test subjects.

Although Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is not carcinogenic in experimental animals, it has been shown that it causes severe epidermal changes to the area of the skin of mice to which it was applied. This study indicates a need for tumor-enhancing activity assays.

A Danger to Marine Life?

There is also the documented damage SLS can cause to aquatic wild life. In fact the Pesticide Action Network identifies SLS as harmful to marine wild life and the environment in general. Basically any surfactant can be harmful to marine life. As SLS is extremely corrosive it can damage the mucus layer in fish and other aquatic animals. Fish for instance rely on this to ward off bacteria. It’s estimated that this will kill fish at 15 parts per million and considerably lower the production of fish eggs.

Consider where most of these products containing SLS end up. For the most part they get flushed down bathroom drains, into the storm water network and then deposited into the ocean. While the ocean is vast, consider how much of this chemical gets flushed into our waterways from shampoos, toothpastes, soap residue, laundry detergents….

Buying and Using Sulfate Free Products

Should you decide to make the switch you will notice an immediate difference when using a Sulfate Free product. Firstly you will notice the amount of lather or foam produced is substantially less and secondly in products such as toothpaste you will notice a difference in taste.

Switching to a Sulfate Free shampoo may also take some adjustment. Most natural shampoos do not produce as much lather as shampoos that contain sulfates. This can give the impression that your hair is less clean. This is because Sulfates strip natural oils from your hair thus leaving your hair and scalp feeling very dried out. This is often mistakenly associated with feeling clean.

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