Should I avoid products with Sulfates?

by Gio
should you avoid sulfates

Remember the good old days when shampoos actually cleaned hair?

Now, they always seem to leave a slick of oil and a layer on buildup all over your locks.

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But, if you’re fellow oily-haired girl with a mane that pumps out grease like there’s no tomorrow, you know what I’m talking about.

Sulfate-free shampoos are a no-go. And yet, you sort of have to go there because sulfates are slowly disappearing from the haircare aisles.

They make you bald. Give your cancer. Are the devil incarnated. That’s what the haters say. Science has a different opinion…

What Are Sulfates?

Sulfates are a family of cleansers derived from coconut oil. Its most famous members are:

  • Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS)
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
  • TEA Laureth Sulfate (TEA)

Their job is to help oil and dirt mix with water so they can easily be rinsed away.

Sulfate have another, more fun job, too. They make your shampoos (and body washes, cleansers etc) foam and bubble. Mind you, a shampoo can cleanse well even if it doesn’t foam at all. But we all like a good lather, don’t we?

Do Sulfates Cause Cancer?

Ok, this isn’t an accusation thrown at every Sulfate. It’s Sodium Lauryl Sulfate that’s on trial here.

Do a quick internet search. You’ll unearth hundreds of websites saying that Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can cause cancer and cataract, slow down healing and keep children’s eyes from developing properly. Scary, huh?

Let’s look at the evidence before we panic.

This rumour seems to have originated with an email going around making accusations against Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Surprise surprise, it turned out to be an hoax.

The truth is there is no proof Sodium Lauryl Sulfate causes cancer:

  • SLS isn’t classified as carcinogenic by any regulatory agency or cancer authority
  • There is no reference in the scientific literature that even hints at the possibility of SLS causing cancer.

Don’t take my word for it. Do a quick search on Pubmed, (a repository of scientific studies). You won’t find a single one on there claiming SLS causes cancer.

Does SLS Slow Down Healing And Hurt Children’s Eyes?

Remember the other crimes Sodium Lauryl Sulfate was accused of? Slowing down healing, causing cataracts and preventing children’s eyes from developing properly.

They all originated from a study done by the Medical College of Georgia in 1989. The study was done on animals (not children!) using concentrations far higher than those used in shampoos (or any other personal care product, for that matter).

This alone tells you the results aren’t the most reliable. But, here’s what the study found out:

  1. Slower healing charge: If the cornea is damaged, exposure to high concentrations of SLS can slow down healing. But, seriously, is this a surprise? If the cornea is damaged, pretty much anything will do more damage to it. More damage = slower healing.
  2. Cataracts charge: SLS will indeed cause cataracts if you immerse the lens of your eye in it. But the lens is set so deep within your eye, it’s impossible it will ever come in contact with SLS (you don’t want to know how this study was done, trust me!).
  3. Hurting children’s eyes charge: the researches didn’t do any experiments on the effects of SLS on children’s eyes. This one is completely made up.

Phew!

Are Sulfates Irritants?

I hate to see folks accused of crimes they didn’t commit. If they’re innocent of something, I’ll take their defence. But that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to their shortcomings.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate may not cause cancer, or any other of those nasty things it’s accused of, but it sure is irritating. All surfactants are. It’s in their nature.

Let me explain.

Surfactants remove oil from hair (and skin). When they remove only the excess, everything’s cool. But, when they remove too much? That’s when your hair becomes dry and your scalp prone to irritations. No Bueno.

But, not all surfactants are created equal. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is the worst culprit. When scientists want to know how irritating something is, they compare it to SLS! Eek!

Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate is slightly less irritating than its cousin SLS. But, if you have dry/sensitive hair, scalp, you’ll do well to avoid both.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate are the gentlest (and less foaming) members of the family.  Sure, if your hair is very dry or your skin very sensitive, they may not agree with you, either. But, most of us can use them safely.

There are a couple more things to consider:

  1. Concentration: the higher it is, the higher the irritating potential.
  2. Other ingredients: if the shampoo is also loaded with moisturising ingredients that replenish the oils surfactants strip away, they’re less likely to cause irritations.

If you use conditioner after shampoo and a moisturiser after a shower, you shouldn’t have any problems with the gentlest surfactants (again, unless you’re particularly sensitive to them).

What About Sulfates In Leave-On Products?

You know what else influences how irritating something is? How long it stays on hair (and skin). If it’s rinsed off after a few minutes (as is the case with shampoo), it’s less likely to cause irritations.

And that’s what we talked about so far. Shampoo. But what about moisturisers, sunscreens and foundations? It’s true they rarely contain sulfates, but I’ve come across a couple when these cleansers managed to sneak in.

What the heck are they doing there? It’s not like a moisturizer is supposed to cleanse.

Well, sulfates are sometimes used in leave-on products to give them a pearlescent appearance. That’s it.

That’s not enough to justify the increased risk of irritation, imo.

Should You Avoid Products With Sulfate?

You should avoid Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate and leave-on products with sulfates. The milder sulfates in rinse-off products, such as shampoos and body washes are perfectly fine for most people.

Do you use products with sulfates or do you prefer to avoid them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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26 comments

Stavroula Plag July 28, 2010 - 1:39 pm

Very useful post!! 🙂

drugstoreandbargainlover

Reply
beautifulwithbrains July 28, 2010 - 6:58 pm

Stavroula, thanks, I’m glad you found it useful. 🙂

Reply
Jeni July 29, 2010 - 9:32 am

I just started using some sulfate-free shampoos to see if they would make my hair fall out any less. So far I’ve noticed no difference at all, which is pretty much what I expected. I’m going to keep testing different sulfate-free shampoos, though, cause so many people keep asking me about them!

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beautifulwithbrains July 29, 2010 - 1:09 pm

Jeni, I’m afraid I’m not surprised that sulfate-free shampoos didn’t help with your problems either. 🙁 I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using sulfate-free shampoos and I’m glad that there are alternatives for those with sensitive skin that may get irritated by sulfates. It just saddens me that there is lots of misinformation out there about these ingredients that might make people want to avoid them in favour of less effective but more expensive alternatives thinking they’re safer when they’re not.

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sharon December 8, 2010 - 3:03 am

Great article however one of the primary reasons you want to avoid SLS and SLES is because of the size of their molecules. The molecule is very small which means it could deeply penetrate the skin which causes irritation in many.

As a soap maker , skincare advocate and eczema sufferer I highly recommend those with problem skin not use products with these ingredients. Most of my buyers have eczema or some sort of problem skin and they all had bad reactions prior to using my products and I educate them on well known triggers. They had no idea Dove, Aveeno, and others had irritants in them.

A safer alternative would be SLSA which is short for Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate because it is a large molecule and does not penetrate the skin and not known to cause irritation nor strip skin of moisture . Also one of the reasons SLS aka Sodium Laureth Sulfate is used commonly is not only does it create lots of foam however it is cheap and quicker for manufacturers. In other words it is used as a short cut to primarily keep up with population demand..

When making TRUE SOAP free of SULFATES the lather comes from a carrier oil being combined with lye to make TRUE SOAP through a process known as saponifaction. The lye is cooked out and the soap creates and retains natural glycerine. Using a sulfate is a really a short cut because true soap can take weeks if not months to fully.

Like I said this is a good article and you are entitled to your opinion however it was missing bits of crucial information especially those with problem skin.

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beautifulwithbrains December 9, 2010 - 5:15 pm

Sharon, thank you for your comment. I do agree with you on a couple of points. SLS and SLES are very used because they are very cheap and company therefore prefer them to other gentler but a bit more expensive surfactants. Also, I agree that they can be irritating and if you have serious skin problems like eczema and rosacea then it may be better to opt for other option.

However, I don’t believe that SLS and SLES are necessarily bad ingredients. They are getting lots of bad press lately which I think is undeserved, especially the fact they cause cancer which is just not true. They can also cause irritation but only to certain people. If you experience a negative reaction when using them, then of course you should avoid them. But if they work fine for you, then why not use them because they cause irritation to someone else?

In the end, though, I think that, just like every other ingredient, SLS and SLES have both pros and cons and aren’t for everyone.

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sharon December 10, 2010 - 3:35 am

I have done extensive research on SLS/SLES as in countless if not thousands of hours on these sulfates/detergents and just because a person is not have a reaction now, does not mean they won’t have a reaction later.

As mentioned previously I am an eczema sufferer however I should have mentioned it came from years of using bath bars that contain detergents which is what SLS/SLES is. Over time it stripped my skin due to the size of molecule and I can not go near anything with such ever again. If I had educated myself prior to becoming a soap maker I could have saved myself allot of misery.

At any rate I have no control over who buys what. I am educating on the immediate and possible long term use of using such. My buyers thank me all the time for educating them and many had no idea it was SLS/SLES that was causing their irritation no matter what store bought product they purchased.

Remember there are safer alternatives and I already mentioned molecular size has allot to do with irritation as well…There are no pros to these harsh ingredients for the buyer in the long run except it is really cheap and easily accessible.

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beautifulwithbrains December 10, 2010 - 12:49 pm

Sharon, I understand where you are coming from and I’m really sorry it was SLS/SLES that gave you eczema. However, pretty much every ingredient can give someone a bad reaction after years of use. I know of people that used products with beeswax for years with no problems and then, several years later, they have become allergic to it and can’t go anywhere near products that contain it. Singleing out only SLS/SLES as bad is wrong imo.

I do agree that molecular size has a lot to do with it, but I think it is a concern more in leave in products (especially since there is no reason to use SLS/SLES in leave-in products in the first place). In rinse out products though, these ingredients are washed away and end up down the drain and only a very small amount may remain on hair/skin and for most people, unless they are very sensitive skin or any other serius skin problems, that’s not a problem.

I do think you are doing a great job at educating your consumers about the potential side effects of SLS/SLES, especially if they already have skin problems, but so far, judging from the scientific studies and journals I’ve read, I don’t think SLES is a problematic ingredient for most people. SLS instead is more irritating and should only be used in clarifying shampoo that one uses once every fortnight or so.

Personally, though I use both products with and without sulfates and they all work well for me. I just like to have choices really.

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Brie December 29, 2010 - 7:13 pm

you have the SLS’ confused. Sodium Lauryl is the “non carcinogenic” and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (also know as Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate) IS the carginogenic ingredient.

When the Laureth one is found in cosmetics it it strongly monitored by the FDA and governments apporvals

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beautifulwithbrains December 29, 2010 - 8:26 pm

Brie, as far as I know all sulfates used in beauty products aren’t carcinogenic. SLES is actually considered a safer choice than SLS because it is gentler and milder. Do you have any links to any website/study that states it causes cancer? I’d be very interested to see such studies if they exist, but I’ve never come across one yet.

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Miss D January 21, 2011 - 5:09 am

There is a growing group of doctors who feel that the load of chemicals in the modern world, including sulfates are pushing children past some tipping point. Autistic Children are being referred to as the “canaries in the coal mine.” This is why I intend to avoid anything with sulfates for my family. We have just heard about this from a gastro-intestinal specialist. I have an autistic child and I am just not willing to take the risk for him or anyone in my family. If its showing up in our tissues, organs and brains do we really want to keep putting it on our body several times a day?

http://journals.lww.com/jpgn/Fulltext/2004/06001/P0788_Abnormal_Sulfate_Metabolism_in_Autism.912.aspx

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beautifulwithbrains January 21, 2011 - 10:07 pm

Miss D, thanks for bringing this to my attention and for the link. However, I’m still not convinced that sulfates in cosmetics are bad. The study you referred to shows the effects on the body when sulfates are ingested. The amounts in shampoos or other cosmetic products are miniscule and they aren’t ingested, just topically applied on the skin and there is no proof that used that way it has the same side effects. Especially when used in rinse off product and the sulfates are washed away and end up down the drain. I do understand though that in your situation you don’t wanna take any risks and avoid sulfates altogether and respect your decision.

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Debbie Ferguson January 5, 2012 - 5:51 am

Thanks for this positive article. It’s difficult sifting through the negative hype about SLES. I am an ENJO consultant selling products which allow people to clean their home and body with a cloth and just water. We also sell a few cleaners for stubborn grease and grime, one of which is called Marble Paste (love it!). One of it’s ingredients is SLES and I’ve been concerned I was selling something that is bad. I found your article very informative. Thank you for sharing it and staying involved with your replies to comments and concerns. Your time and efforts are greatly appreciated!

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beautifulwithbrains January 5, 2012 - 7:52 pm

Debbie, thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed this article. And don’t worry, you’re not selling anything that’s bad. Unfortunately it seems that a lot of synthetic ingredients are receiving a lot of bad press at the moment, with everyone obsessing about natural products, but there just is no proof that SLES is bad for you.

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lidia August 8, 2012 - 12:09 am

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/07/13/sodium-lauryl-sulfate.aspx#_edn2
I just think you should read it, it’s more complete information

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beautifulwithbrains August 8, 2012 - 6:14 am

Lidia, thank you for the link, but that article is full of misinformation and lies. Mercola claims that what we eat is actually more dangerous than what we put on our skin, which simply isn’t true. The purpose of the skin is to keep stuff OUT of the body and it does that pretty well. Very few ingredients can penetrate inside our body, most just stay on the surface. SLS is mainly used in rinse-off products so it ends up down the drain. Thus, even repeated exposure is not a concern because SLS doesn’t accumulate in the body. It may cause irritations in some people (all surfactants do), but that’s it. There is absolutely no proof that SLS is toxic or causes cancer. In the article, Mercola clearly states that even the scientists that performed studies on SLS think their findings were insignificant and that SLS is safe, yet he still twists their words to claim it’s bad!

Why? Because Mercola sells a bunch of organic stuff. It’s in his best interest to make people believe chemicals are bad so that you’ll be scared into buying his products. He even says the sun isn’t bad even though it’s been amply proved it causes cancer so that he can sell tanning beds. That guy is a quack and you should take with a pinch of salt everything he says. Real science simply doesn’t support his claims.

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Michelle October 13, 2012 - 12:36 am

Lidia, thank you for the link, but that article is full of misinformation and lies. Mercola claims that what we eat is actually more dangerous than what we put on our skin, which simply isn’t true. The purpose of the skin is to keep stuff OUT of the body and it does that pretty well. Very few ingredients can penetrate inside our body, most just stay on the surface. SLS is mainly used in rinse-off products so it ends up down the drain. Thus, even repeated exposure is not a concern because SLS doesn’t accumulate in the body. It may cause irritations in some people (all surfactants do), but that’s it. There is absolutely no proof that SLS is toxic or causes cancer. In the article, Mercola clearly states that even the scientists that performed studies on SLS think their findings were insignificant and that SLS is safe, yet he still twists their words to claim it’s bad!

Why? Because Mercola sells a bunch of organic stuff. It’s in his best interest to make people believe chemicals are bad so that you’ll be scared into buying his products. He even says the sun isn’t bad even though it’s been amply proved it causes cancer so that he can sell tanning beds. That guy is a quack and you should take with a pinch of salt everything he says. Real science simply doesn’t support his claims.

REPLY

Can I ask why patches of say nicotine and pain relief patches are used and successful ways of administering such things into the body if the skins purpose is to keep stuff out in your opinion?

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beautifulwithbrains October 14, 2012 - 9:58 pm

Michelle, the main function of the skin is to act as a barrier that prevents external substances from entering our bodies. It is not my opinion. It is a fact. Just pick up any science book about skin and they’ll tell you the same. If everything we touch entered our bodies through the skin, just imagine how many viruses and bacteria would constantly get inside us. In fact, when skin is broken and abraded the chances of bacteria, viruses and other substances getting inside is higher which is why we need to be more careful with what we touch and shouldn’t apply anything on there.

Our skin does an excellent job at keeping stuff out of the body, but like I said in my previous comment, a few substances still have the ability to penetrate inside. There aren’t many that can do this though which is why there aren’t many meds that are administered through patches and creams. For most illnesses and ailments, doctors still prescribe mostly injections or pills. It would be wonderful if these could all be substituted with ointments but the truth is that it is incredibly hard for scientists to come up with effective delivery systems that allow things we apply topically to penetrate inside our bodies. It’s not impossible, some exist and it is possible that, as science progresses, we’ll be able to find ways to penetrate the skin barrier more effectively, but as of yet, it’s very hard.

In addition, nicotine and pain relief patches are different from cosmetics. The first two have been formulated in a way that ensures they get delivered inside the body, cosmetics aren’t. There are a few ingredients that can enhance penetration of other ingredients but even these don’t work too well. Propylene Glycol for instance has in theory the ability to enhance penetration of ingredients, but it is used in too small concentrations in cosmetics to be effective in that way. Most ingredients used in cosmetics are made up of molecules that are way too large to penetrate the skin anyway and stay on the surface. Others, like Vitamin C, need to be used in high concentrations and be formulated with the right ph to be able to penetrate the skin.

In the end, just because one substance can penetrate inside, it doesn’t mean that all can. It depends on the individual substance and the delivery system used to enhance penetration.

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eva August 19, 2013 - 6:44 pm

I recently purchased some products from Arbonne, after lots of pressure from the independent distributor. She went on and on about the toxic effects of sulfates and how Arbonne does not use them and here I find the 2nd ingredient in their shampoo to be ammonium laureth sulfate.
Before I get back to her I wanted to do some research to find out if this is any safer than sodium laureth sulfate or sodium lauryl sulfate. (or the whole thing is just hype)

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beautifulwithbrains August 20, 2013 - 7:44 pm

Eva, unfortunately lots of distributors are ill-informed as they get their information from the brand, and that’s often some marketing speech about how good their products are. Brands often tend to exaggerate the benefits of the ingredients they use, while claiming those of their competitors are ineffective or even dangerous.

Sulfates aren’t toxic. They can be irritating, but then their job is to remove dirt from the body. If they’re too delicate, they won’t do that well. Of course they can’t be too strong either or they will irritate and dry out skin. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is one of the few to avoid as it’s very irritating, but Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate are both considered to be gentle. There really isn’t much difference between them.

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Barbara September 7, 2016 - 7:52 pm

As always, a very informative and useful post. Love the section explaining where the paranoia comes from!

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Gio September 18, 2016 - 4:17 pm

Barbara, glad you enjoyed it and found it useful.

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Dawn June 10, 2018 - 12:23 pm

Hi, what are your thoughts when SLES is found in sunscreens? Tinosorb s Aqua seems to use SLES as parts of its suspension, and therefore appears on the ingredients list. I do wonder sometimes if this would cause any underlying problems for the skin..

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Gio June 16, 2018 - 10:27 am

Dawn, if your skin is sensitive, it may indeed cause problems. Imo, there are better ways to create a suspensions so I wouldn’t go with this one.

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Dawn June 16, 2018 - 11:27 am

Thank you for the advice. The concentration is <0.07%, but I guess it still stays on the skin for a very long time. Great article :). Sodium lauryl sulfate also may also cause issues for aquatic organisms.. from what I understand. However not sure if these chemicals are filtered out of water before it reaches the ocean. Probably not!

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Gio June 22, 2018 - 10:23 am

Dawn, yes, the concentration is very small so in theory it shouldn’t cause any problems. But still, especially if your skin is sensitive, I wouldn’t take the risk. Ah, so much crap ends up in the oceans! For me, this is a good reason to avoid some ingredients. They may be safe for us, but not always for the environment too 🙁

Reply

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