Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Soap’s Dirty Secrets

SLS vs SLES: Avoid Both by Using Simple, Natural Soaps

Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Soap’s Dirty Secrets

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By Rebecca Snowden

Sodium laurel sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. What do those terms mean? And will they harm you or the environment?

Soap making is one of the oldest crafts, going back as far as 6,000 years. It is a craft that is used all over the world and by many different cultures. Today, there are soaps made for a number of purposes. It’s available for personal, commercial and industrial use. There are handmade, homemade and commercially produced soap making techniques. There is soap used to wash clothes, dishes, and cars. There is soap used for your pet, soap for your carpet and soap for your child.


Take a closer look at what’s inside your conventional soap products — the facts get pretty ugly. From harsh chemicals that pose health risks to the prevalence of petroleum-derived ingredients, you might be surprised to learn that what’s inside is ruining the planet and harming your health.

Where there are bubbles, there’s usually sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), two harsh surfactants that are known eye and skin irritants. SLES is the gentler of the pair, but it is often contaminated with 1.4 dioxane, a probable human carcinogen, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When this chemical swirls down your drain, it enters the waterway and can build up in marine life. Buy bottles labeled “sulfate-free.”

You won’t get the same bubbling action, but your hair will get clean — guaranteed.

What to Know About SLS and SLES

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are the top two ingredients to avoid when purchasing shampoos and soaps. Why?

  1. It is a known skin irritant. When cosmetic companies need to test the healing properties of a lotion, they need to irritate the skin first. What do they use to do this? SLS, of course. If you have dandruff, dermatitis, canker sores, or other irritated tissues or skin, it could be due to SLS.
  2. It pollutes our groundwater. It is toxic to fish and other aquatic animals and has the potential for bioaccumulation (meaning it accumulates in the bodies of the fish). It also is undetected in many municipal water filters, getting into the tap water that you drink.
  3. It is actually a pesticide and herbicide. It is commonly used to kill plants and insects. Makers of SLS recently petitioned to have SLS listed as an approved pesticide for organic farming. The application was denied because of its polluting properties and environmental damage.
  4. It emits toxic fumes when heated. Toxic sodium oxides and sulfur oxides are released when SLS is heated. Makes a hot shower with an SLS shampoo seem not quite as nice…
  5. It has corrosive properties. According to the American College of Toxicity, this includes corrosion of the fats and proteins that make up skin and muscle.  SLS can be found in garage floor cleaners, engine degreasers, and car wash soaps.
  6. Long-term permeation of the body’s tissues. A study from the University of Georgia Medicine showed that SLS had the power to permeate the eyes, brain, heart, and liver.
  7. It’s an eye irritant. It was shown to cause cataracts in adults and is proven to inhibit the proper formation of eyes in small children.
  8. Nitrate and other solvent contamination. Toxic solvents, including carcinogenic nitrates are used in the manufacturing of SLS, traces of which can remain in the product.
  9. The manufacturing process is highly polluting, emitting cancer-causing volatile organic compounds, sulfur compounds, and air particulates.
  10. It helps other chemicals get into your body. SLS is a penetration enhancer, meaning that its molecules are so small they’re able to cross the membranes of your body’s cells. Once cells are compromised, they become more vulnerable to other toxic chemicals that may be with the SLS.

Products commonly found to contain sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate are soaps, shampoos, bubble baths, toothpaste, dish soap, laundry detergent, children’s soaps/shampoos, body wash, shave cream, mascara, mouthwash, moisturizer/body lotion, and sun block/sunscreens.

Other ingredients to also be aware of are artificial colors, coal tars, petrolatum or mineral oil, sodium hydroxide, and Triclosan.

What Should You Use?

Find a soap made with only a handful of listed ingredients, like Castile soap. It’s all that is needed. Simple is best, right?

Help spread the word on harmful ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate. Learn more about Rebecca Snowden and natural alternatives at

Originally published in Countryside and Small Stock Journal July/August 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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