Bubble Trouble: What Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

Decoding Household Chemicals


Clever advertising slogans like “squeaky clean” and “scrubbing bubbles” may conjure images of health and hygiene, but the effects of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) on your health and environment are questionable. Manufacturers like SLS because it makes their products lather and thicken; you won’t like SLS because its effect ranges from irritation of the skin, eyes and throat, to organ toxicity, according to the Environmental Working Group.  Read more for the full details.

Sodium lauryl sulfate is a very common ingredient found in many personal care and household cleaning products. You will find it in everyday products like toothpaste, shampoo, face wash, body wash, liquid hand soap, cosmetics and detergents.

The Skinny Science:

Sodium lauryl sulfate is the crystalline salt of sulfated lauryl alcohol. Its primary function is to be a surfactant —a compound that breaks up molecules on the surface layer of a compound via its dual composition of both oil soluble and water soluble parts. This is how SLS lathers and thickens. It disrupts surface molecules, allowing two different materials like soap and your hands, to interact more deeply.

Word to the Wise:

Unfortunately, SLS’s efficacy as a surfactant is ultimately what irritates your skin, gums, throat and scalp.

While no one is dropping dead after using shampoo or toothpaste, in situations like these, it is best to be informed about the cumulative effects of repeated exposure and make consumer choices that are the right fit for you, whether you want to go moderate or go conservative.

If you want to go moderate, you may want to eliminate only some of the products containing SLS from your daily routine but keep a couple of longtime favorites until someone develops an SLS-free replacement that you like better. For example, if you can’t part with your favorite face wash that you’ve been using for five years, keep other products SLS-free, like toothpaste, shampoo, and liquid hand soap. Just make sure to keep a running tally on your daily cumulative exposure to products containing SLS.

If you want to go conservative, you may want to remove nearly every product containing SLS from your daily regimen. This is especially pertinent if you are prone to skin irritation, or if you care for children. Common skin irritations include acne, dandruff, canker sores, contact allergies or eczema.

As you make your choices, keep in mind that the average person uses 10 different personal care products on his or her body everyday and that the skin absorbs over 60% of substances applied topically.

As always, the best strategy is the one that works for you. Stay informed and green your routine to what fits you best.

Extra Tidbits:

  • Alternative names quick list:  Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) has a close cousin called sodium laureth ether sulfate (SLES) that should also be avoided.
  • Both SLS and SLES are banned by the European Union, but not by the U.S.
  • Coconut oil and soap bark are two common natural surfactants.
  • For more information, check out these sources:  Skin Deep and the Environmental Working Group.


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