Giving your skin a good scrub should be one of the most natural and cleansing things that you can do after a long day. Packaged up as refreshing and invigorating, a dollop of cleanser and a smear of facial scrub provides that perfect end of day release; washing away the daily build up of pollution and dirt that clings to our skin and embeds itself in our pores right?
It’s estimated that on average, we slather over 200 chemicals onto our skin everyday just to look good, and thanks to science and the development of nano particles, over 60% of them head straight for the bloodstream; one of those is Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.
For the benefit of this post (and the potential for bad spelling) we’ll refer to Sodium Lauryl Sulfate as SLS, and Sodium Laureth Sulfate as SLES, as they’re more commonly known in the cosmetics industry. But what’s the difference? SLS is a surfactant – a cleaning ingredient that blends together sulphuric acid, lauryl alcohol and sodium bicarbonate to create a strong cleanser that breaks surface tension to work better on the area it’s cleaning. Although derived from natural materials, the chemical processes involved in manufacturing make it far from natural. Sodium Laureth Sulfate is slightly different in the sense that Ethylene Oxide is added to the mix in order to lessen the irritation factor of the chemical. But while the differences in the manufacturing process of the chemical may be minimal, the resulting effects are pretty harsh.
Where can it be found?
Both SLS and SLES are widely found in products that we use everyday due to the fact they are cheap to produce and cheap to buy. Toothpaste and mouthwash, facial cleanser, shampoo and even baby bath products. But without all of the perfumes and pretty pearlescent liquids, it is also used widely in various industrial strength detergents and cleaning agents including engine degreaser. Furthermore, and perhaps most worrying of all is its common use as a pesticide, with manufacturers of the chemical petitioning for its approval in organic farming (which was rejected due to its negative environmental impact and polluting properties) Nice!
Why is it used in so many of our products?
As mentioned, it’s cheap, so if a manufacturer can avoid cutting into their profits with a kinder alternative then some will, unfortunately. But it is also down to us too, through no fault of our own. SLS and SLES are great foaming agents that create a rich and thick lather; something that for many years we have associated with cleanliness. The more we want of it, the more we get and so this has been deemed quite an essential ingredient in many of our personal cleaning products. There’s no doubting its skills as a cleanser, ever washed your face and felt like all of the moisture has been sucked out of your skin? Say goodbye to all of that muck on your face… as well as the good oils that we need.
How is it made?
This is the worrying bit where it all goes wrong for SLS & SLES, and the reason why we really should be avoiding it where we can. Through it’s manufacturing process toxic solvents and nitrates that are known to be carcinogenic are used. Not all of these can be eradicated when creating SLS so its highly likely that some will remain in the product once its all packaged up and ready to go. Volatile compounds are also released through manufacture and these have an adverse effect on our environment and our bodies too; so while that cleanser you love might be packaged up as green because the bottle is made from recycled materials, just have a spy at those ingredients to see exactly whats in it. Green – it aint! While SLS & SLES have not been proven to have a link to cancer, the product itself can become contaminated with Dioxane, which, is a suspected carcinogen that stays in our system for a while. Is it worth the risk?
What can it do to our bodies?
The fact that this ingredient is widely used as a tested skin irritant for products that heal skin conditions should send alarm bells ringing and beg the question, Why is it being used? More people are affected by it than you may realise… myself included. A friend told me that she was suffering with cracked lips only to then find out that SLS in her toothpaste was responsible. I cut it out and found that I felt much better as a result. Ever had an itchy head after shampooing? It might be that irritant you’re rubbing into it. Feel a bit dizzy after a shower sometimes? It could also be those Sulfur Oxides and Toxic Sodium Oxides that release when SLS is heated up.
The effects of SLS & SLES on our body can be pretty grim when you look at what happens. The University of Georgia Medicine published a study that revealed that SLS has the power to permeate the body’s tissues including the eyes, heart, liver and even the brain. As a penetration enhancer it also acts as a gateway for other chemicals to get into your body, including all of those carcinogens that may have contaminated your cosmetics. Scary thought that…
How can I avoid it?
Without going totally 100% natural, its pretty difficult. Because more and more people are becoming aware of SLS & SLES and trying to avoid products containing them, manufacturers are becoming wise to our actions and cleverly disguising alternatives as a more natural choice such as coconut derived SLS. Many SLS-free products are labelled as such and some can even be found in supermarkets, but the best way is to keep it natural and buy from approved brands that know how important it is to avoid these nasties.
There is a lot of conflicting information out there from brands preaching about the safety of SLS & SLES but if the above is anything to go by, I think I’ll be turning my back on it.
Food for thought…
Info, facts and stats for this blog were sourced from: