What Is SLS?
SLS stands for sodium lauryl sulfate. It is a cheap foaming agent used in most shampoos, toothpaste, detergents, floor and car soaps, shaving creams, bubble bath suds, mouthwashes, moisturizers, dissolvable aspirins, and pesticides.
Sodium lauryl sulfate has a cousin, seen in many of the same products: sodium laureth sulfate (aka SLES). Petroleum is converted to ethylene, then oxygen is added to form ethylene oxide. When combined with SLS, the solution becomes SLES. SLES is also a cheap foaming agent (a surfactant), thought by some to be gentler than SLS.
And sometimes in “SLS-free” products, you will see ammonium lauryl sulfate (aka ALS) instead. ALS is also a cheap foaming agent (a surfactant), thought by some to be gentler than SLS or SLES.
You may not have heard of SLS at all, or you may have sort of heard it’s not great but don’t really know why. The latter was me, not long ago. But recently I looked it up as a part of the Green Your Insides Challenge….
And I was horrified! “Carcinogenic,” “highly damaging to the liver,” “highly irritating and dangerous” were phrases that jumped out at me. Yikes! So today I sat down to research further and share that research with you all, thinking many of you may not have had time to research it on your own.
Much to my surprise, I found Snopes calling this a “Shampoo Scam,” and the American Cancer Society refuting the carcinogenic statements. Even Treehugger debunks the “eco-myth” that SLS causes cancer.
Yet, I went to the Skin Deep website, a well-respected site created by the Environmental Working Group, and the page for SLS notes: “in vitro tests on mammalian cells show positive mutation results” for cancer, “animal studies show brain and nervous system effects at moderate doses” for neurotoxicity, “animal studies show sense organ effects at low doses” for organ system toxicity, and strong evidence for it being a “human irritant.” Despite these scary claims, on a scale from 1 to 10, Skin Deep rates SLS a “2: low hazard.”
Skin Deep rates SLES a “3-4: moderate hazard”. While SLES is does not have a history of studies pointing toward carcinogenic possibilities, it cites concerns that SLES is contaminated by these carcinogenic chemicals:
1. Ethylene Oxide (that’s the “E” in SLES). When I clicked on “ethylene oxide” at Skin Deep, I came up with a “10: high hazard.” (Take a moment to click on that ethylene oxide link and look on the right at all of the products that contain it – yikes.)
2. 1,4-Dioxane, which is a solvent. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), this is a known eye and respiratory tract irritant. It is suspected of causing damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys. Skin Deep also rates it a “10: high hazard.” (And again, do take a look at all the products that contain it.)
Skin Deep rates ALS a “1: low hazard”, for organ system toxicity and skin irritation at low doses.
They Do All Agree On Some Things
So what do you do with that conflicting information? You can do your own research and look into the published articles on the subject at the National Library of Medicine. There are 800 of them.
You can also look at what all the studies have in common: SLS, SLES, and ALS are most definitely skin and eye irritants. Nobody disputes this, lots of studies have shown this. They do strip your hair of oils and proteins (so that many of us have to put them back with conditioners). When in toothpaste, SLS has been linked to canker sores. Swallowing SLS will most likely cause nausea and diarrhea.
In my search, I also found other ingredients commonly found in many of these household products: DEA (aka cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, TEA-Lauryl Sulfate, Triethanolamine, etc, etc.) is another ingredient often added as a foaming agent – even the USDA believes it is a carcinogen. Skin Deep lists cocamide DEA a “6: moderate hazard,” as an irritant, toxicant, and carcinogen. Parabens are a family of preservatives found in most of these products. Paraben is “7: high hazard,” sodium methylparaben is “8: high hazard.” DMDM Hydantoin is an antimicrobial formaldehyde releaser found in many shampoos, conditioners, and skin care products: “7-9: high hazard.”
And I’m sure some of you have come across other potentially harmful ingredients as well (please feel free to share). So even if SLS and SLES are “only” skin and eye irritants, there are lots of other things in those products that can make you sick.
Rethink The Whole Thing.
We go to the store and purchase a product that some marketer has packaged and called shampoo. We’re supposed to buy it so that our hair can look good. We’re supposed to buy that other product so that our floors can look good (funny, they have many of the same ingredients). And that other product so that our car, our table, our everything else will look good.
Stop and look at what you really need to make your hair, body, and home beautiful. Don’t risk your health because someone said a certain product is the only thing that works. Don’t buy into their marketing. Redefine normal on your own terms.
And this doesn’t mean that you have to risk your pocketbook for a $10 shampoo that doesn’t have all the bad things in it. See if you can find something else that works, something simple.
You can clean your entire house and yourself with only vinegar, baking soda, water, soap, hydrogen peroxide (or tea tree oil), and washing soda. So try it. No need to buy an expensive bottle of something that has 10-15 ingredients in it, trucked from all around the world, packaged, and trucked again to you. Eliminate the excess, for your planet, your pocketbook, for your family’s health.