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What’s The Matter With SLS?

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

Sodium Laureth Sulfate


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.


SLS Controversy

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.


Why Bother?

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.


What Is The Green Your Insides Challenge?

To start greening your own home.

First, start paying attention to what you put on your body, in your body, and around your body. Right now.

And then over the next few months, put it all into practice: take solid steps to green your indoor environment.

If you don’t know where to start, follow my articles as I talk about what we’ve done over the next several weeks!

Find out more here.


I'm Green Inside

What Do You Think?

Will you try to give up these unnecessary products?


Or if you have already, what do you use instead?


Have you researched SLS? What have your experiences been with it – is it an irritant?

Similar Posts:

42 comments to What’s The Matter With SLS?

  • I don’t seem to have any problem with it, but my boyfriend has very sensitive skin and the eczema on his hands completely cleared up within a month of switching all our cleaning to Dr Bronner’s and similar soaps. I still have a couple Tom’s of Maine toothpastes that have SLS in them (some varieties do, some don’t), but they’re the flavors that I like less well anyway, so I don’t expect to get them again. I now use baking soda and vinegar on my hair, some locally-made goatsmilk soap for the rest of me, and Dr Bronner’s and vinegar for dishwashing and other household cleaning.

  • I switched the entire family to all-natural, locally made bar soaps for faces, hands and showering and use bar shampoos for hair. They lather very nicely, and I even use the bard of soap to make suds for bubble bath for the little one. My hair adjusted to the shampoo bar and I use an all-natural conditioner. However, I didn’t know that Tom’s of Maine had SLS, so I will be checking the labels from now on!

  • I’m allergic to sulfates of all forms, an allergy that developed about the age of 22. It took me years to figure out why some shampoos make me itchy and rashy and others don’t. Now that I use all sulfate free products I have a lot fewer problems.

    Just a note though that there are few brands that are completely sulfate free. I’ve had several instances where I chose a different scent or version of a brand that I thought was sulfate free only to have an allergic reaction and realize that that version is not.

    Thanks for putting this issue out there – maybe now people won’t think I’m so strange when I stand in the aisle at the co-op and read the bottles / bars…

  • Great post. For much of my youth, I had chronic canker sores — sometimes severe, and often breakouts of as many as 4 or 5 sores at once. Gross, and very painful. Then someone mentioned it might be the SLS in my toothpaste. I switched to a JASON variety with no SLS, and voila — gone. I occasionally get one little sore (usually after eating a lot of sugar), and often it goes away with barely any pain. Yippee! And boo for SLS.

  • I’ve suffered with horrible canker sores for years too.
    I have *thought* about changing to a different toothpaste, but now I realize that I NEED to change not just think about it :)

    Last year, I bought all these Grins & Giggles baby soaps for my little guy…and there they sit, on the shelf in the closet…while we use Burts Bees on him instead. I could not use that other junk on him anymore after reading about the ingredients online a few months ago!

    Thanks for this post.

  • I used to be a die hard Pantene person until I stumbled across EWG’s skin deep database. It is was started my whole green progression. Anyhoo, I switched to Dr. Bronner’s over a year ago and love it! The big change I have noticed is my hair stopped falling out. I used to lose handfuls in the shower and constantly had to unclog the drain. It had always been that way so I thought it was normal. It is not normal! Now I lose very little hair, just a few strands. There are those that believe SLS is to blame. I don’t know for sure, but I steer clear of it anyway. Why risk it?

  • Bird

    In my house we use Dr. Bronner’s which scores in the 0-1 hazard range on skin deep. We use it for dishes, laundry, soap and shampoo, we even wash the dogs with it! Tom’s of Maine has a lemon-lime “drymouth” toothpaste (I hate extra ingredients but I hate cavities more!) that has anise extract as a foaming agent. I wonder why more items don’t use that as an ingredient.

  • monica

    What is washing soda?

    I am grateful for all of the research that had been done to arrive at much of this data. I had a job interview earlier this summer at such a facility. I was amazed at the piles of data for cancer research that was “too controversial.” Yet, when the protester gets sick they want to see studies so that they can be rid of their cancer.

    I am interested in buying these products (Dr bonner). Are they available in the regular retail section or only at health food stores? I can’t afford a lot of money to wash my hair, but I am sure that it would benefit.

  • ctdaffodil

    I just made the switch to Burts Bees Rosemary Mint Shampoo Bar! I love it! Not too much mint that my scalp screams “Rinse it off”! like the Aveda liquid stuff I had tried before….I have thick blonde hair….med lenth

  • Sue

    I couldn’t help but giggle when I read the part where you said that the personal care products have largely the same ingredients as the floor cleaners.

    I giggled because what came to mind was the old Saturday Night Live skit with Jane Curtin and Dan Ackroyd where they argue about whether some new product is a floor wax or a dessert topping, and they end by agreeing that it’s BOTH…

    “Mmm, delicious!” “And just LOOK at that shine!”

    I don’t use many personal care products but I bet that some of them have SLS — time to go read labels!


  • We stopped using all products containing SLS, SLES and DEA quite a few years ago. As well as being a common ingredient in toothpaste, soap and shampoo, SLS is also found in cake mix, marshmallows, dried egg products, bubble bath, liquid hand and body wash and some cosmetics. When I worked out how to make good soap several years ago, I never went back to any of the dangerous hair and body products, I clean my teeth with salt and bicarb now and still happily use my homemade soap. I encourage everyone to learnt how to make soap – it’s simple but you need to be careful. Homemade soap can be used to wash bodies, hair, dishes and clothes. It really is a great all-round product. There is a recipe for good olive oil soap on my blog.

  • greeen sheeep — whoa! Your hair stopped falling out after switching? That’s it, I’m convinced. I need to find something else to wash my hair with.

    Of course, the “finding something else to wash my face with” didn’t go so well… so angry about that.

  • Sarah, I just recently started using baking soda and vinegar as well – how do you use it? I’m curious, because I haven’t found a lot of definitive ways to do it…

    And it’s good to hear that I’m not crazy – that others have had similar positive results after cutting out the SLS.

    EBM, Tom’s now makes SLS-free toothpastes as well. They foam with licorice. I love it – we’ve recently switched. It takes a bit to get used to the less foaming action. But we switched back to the “regular” Tom’s because I discovered an old one in the back of the drawer, and the SLS now seems really unnatural. I ended up throwing the rest of the tube away!

    Laura, Ah- that makes sense. Me, too! I just figured I was allergic to all chemicals… and I felt like an idiot. But of course! It was the SLS/SLES/ALS probably.

    And yeah, when I first started thinking about all these things, the only perfume-free laundry detergent was Tide Free. We’ve already come a long way, but we need to go further!

    Cheap Like Me, I remembered a comment you left not too long ago about that – that was what made me think about SLS in toothpaste! So thank you! And yes, boo for SLS. When I was a kid I used to get canker sores all the time. Hmmm… probably whatever toothpaste we were using.

    Heather, You’re welcome – go out and get yourself some SLS-free toothpaste! As I said above (to EBM), it takes a bit to get used to, but once you do, any time you encounter SLS it seems really unnatural.

    Green Sheep, How interesting – I totally noticed this as well! I’m now using baking soda and vinegar and I’ve noticed a huge difference. Hardly any hair falls out anymore! Yikes, eh?

    I agree completely: why risk it?

    Bird, I have also been using the Tom’s toothpaste – LOL, have you noticed it says “patent pending”? Hmm… Anyway, I also recently bought a shampoo that uses licorice as a foaming agent, so I guess it’s catching on.

    We use Green Mountain Soap. For some reason – I know I’m nuts – Dr. Bronners makes my skin itch. So, we all find something that works for us!

    Monica, “What is Washing Soda?” Good question. And you totally caught me. I don’t use washing soda… yet. It is sodium carbonate, similar to baking soda but more alkaline and thus more caustic. That means you should wear gloves when using it, but it will break down grease, oil, wax, and other tough things that you would “normally” use highly toxic solvents for. Good for tough oven-cleaning jobs, or cleaning up engine oil… not everyday things, but things where you need more muscle but don’t want to use the nasty toxic stuff.

    “Where can you buy these products?” You can buy Tom’s of Maine SLS-free toothpaste in most grocery stores and drug stores. But Dr. Bronner’s soap… you will probably have to buy it at a health food store or online. If I recall, it’s not very expensive. Here’s the soap I buy: it’s $13.75 for 32 oz – a huge bottle that will last a long time.

    Ctdaffodil, Good to know – I’ve never used a shampoo bar.

    Sue, That’s hilarious! Happy label hunting!

    Rhonda Jean, Yikes – I had no idea it was in those food products – YUCK. Thank you for telling us all.

    I’ve linked to your olive oil soap in this post. ; ) I’m thinking that I’ll get my sister together during the holidays and we can make soap enough for the whole family! I haven’t made it yet, but it is time.

    Stephanie, I’m so sorry it has been a difficult search… hopefully we’ll be able to find a good solution for you. Hair is easier. ; ) (Famous last words…)

  • A few toxicology-related points:

    Ethylene oxide is a gas. It’s often used for sterilization purposes–I’d like to know the process by which it’s potentially contaminating SLS.

    The results of toxicology tests are often dependent on how the material is being tested; for example, all the genotoxicity tests I know of (and I work at a medical device testing facility) require either internal injection or implantation of the material in live animals, or direct application of an extract to bare cells. It’s not skin contact, which is a much different beast since the skin is a barrier. This makes the tests more sensitive but also means that the results may not apply to something used only on the skin.

    The recent scare on BPA was based on results from tests that did not mimic how chemicals leached from the bottles while drinking would actually be processed in the body.

  • Melinda-I use baking soda and vinegar like this. I mix about 3 or 4 tablespoons of baking soda with warm water in an old shampoo bottle and usually add a few drops of whatever essential oils strike my fancy. I keep that in the shower and for washing I wet my hair, squirt a few tablespoons of the baking soda solution and rub into my scalp then rinse. For the vinegar I dilute about two ounces of apple cider vinegar in a eight ounce peri bottle (a squirt bottle that I got from the hospital when my last one was born) topped of with water. After washing with baking soda and rinsing it out, I squirt the diluted vinegar on my hair and work into the hair, not scalp, then rinse.

  • Just an FYI – I know there’s a lot of debate about fluoride in toothpaste these days, and many natural toothpastes don’t have it. I work in a school of dentistry, and a professor here told me that clinical research shows that toothbrushing only prevents cavities if there’s fluoride in the toothpaste. It’ll prevent tartar, bleeding gums, and the like – but if you want to prevent cavities, you really need the fluoride. There are other ways to reduce your risk of cavities (eating few carbohydrates, including complex carbs like whole grains) so you may decide you won’t miss the fluoride – but no matter what problems it may have, fluoride in toothpaste does prevent cavities.

  • Jenny, Thanks for your comment. I’ve reached the limit of my chemistry abilities with the second paragraph – it’s all I know about how ethylene oxide is used in SLES (note: not SLS). I’ve cited references wherever possible, though – I welcome you to take a look at the original documents!

    And regardless of the toxicology, all sources I’ve read do concur that SLS and SLES are irritants for the skin and eyes. In my mind, since I have very sensitive skin, I just don’t think it’s worth the irritating qualities.

    Lisa, Thank you for your info!! I’ll be doing a post about this soon, and I’m very curious how others do this, too.

    Emily, I know people have wildly different viewpoints about fluoride – thanks for bringing it up. I do use fluoride toothpaste, because it has been so ingrained in me over the years that it’s important for healthy teeth. At the same time, I do have a water filter in the kitchen, which filters out fluoride, chlorine, and other things added to our water because I don’t really want to be drinking it…

  • [...] selling my favorite shampoo and I’m trying to buy locally. Plus, since I researched all those crazy chemicals in shampoos, I’ve been leery of getting them near my body. So despite any reservations, about 3 months [...]

  • I just think that if homemade soaps were subjected to the same scrutiny & testing as “those crazy chemicals”, and were labeled by their chemical names, they’d come out looking just as scary.

    SLS is commonly used in biochemistry (where it’s known as “SDS” or “NaDodSO4″), and if it were a mutagen to any significant degree, that would mess up research on genes by quite a bit! In fact, one of the reasons a SDS plasmid extraction procedure was developed was to avoid the damage to DNA that could be caused by the alternate ethidium bromide technique.

  • Robert, we will have to agree to respectfully disagree. In my opinion, making homemade soaps means by its very nature that you know what is going into them. I’ve provided links above – feel free to check out the research that has been done on SLS and SLES in shampoo and toothpaste. Since it has been well established that they are skin and eye irritants, it’s not worth it to me. There are better alternatives.

  • And what happens when you get homemade soap in your eyes? I’ve made some myself, and I had to be just as careful shampooing with it as with any other. “The research that’s been done on SLS and SLES”, huh? Well, show me the results from the same stringency of tests on soap — your homemade or any other. All the tests I know of show soaps to be skin irritants too.

    You know what’s going in to them? The makers of other soaps know what’s going into them too, to the same precision you know, or greater. Where do you think the slogan “99 and 44/100% pure” came from? They assay their products, and their ingredients.

    Same applies to SDS (SLS). You can get regular grades, you can get electrophoresis grade. There was even a grade sold that advertised a very narrow “cut”, implying that it might produce sharper bands on electrophoresis of proteins.

  • Robert, considering how much we do agree on, I think we both have better things to do than to argue about the intricacies. I’ve provided information here, but certainly not a mandate – you can do with it what you will.

    I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

  • [...] may be linked to breast cancer, and there are possible complications associated with SLS in [...]

  • [...] soda and vinegar are things we always have around the house), I don’t have to worry about what’s going onto my head and into my body, and I’m saving [...]

  • Kelsey

    Instead of deodorant, the essential ingredient of which is aluminum, I make my own, green deodorant! Using 1 part baking soda and 6 parts corn starch I can keep myself from sweating in an inexpensive and healthy way everyday. And the crazy thing is, it really works! I started doing this because of an article I read here also by Melinda. Here’s the URL if you want to get into it too, it really is a great thing.

    Hope you try it!

  • Of course it works, Kelsey, that’s the recipe for Shower to Shower — except that it also had perfume.

  • [...] created, shipped, and made into shampoo; I’ve saved my skin from breaking out due to the chemicals in my shampoo; and I’ve shared that experience with several thousands of other people.  Even if  just 10% [...]

  • firebird12

    Sorry folks to bust your bubble. Burts Bees is owned by Clorox and their labeling is questionable at best. ie. not natural

  • What specific statements on Burts Bees labels are questionable at best, and what difference does who owns them make to their labeling?

  • Hello. This is kind of an “unconventional” question , but have other visitors asked you how get the menu bar to look like you’ve got it? I also have a blog and am really looking to alter around the theme, however am scared to death to mess with it for fear of the search engines punishing me. I am very new to all of this …so i am just not positive exactly how to try to to it all yet. I’ll just keep working on it one day at a time Thanks for any help you can offer here.

  • Paula

    I’m looking for a laundry detergent without ANY sulfates. Do you know of a recipe or brand that has absolutely no sulfates? I use Burt’s Bees on my body without any reactions, but am having a major problem with my sheets and clothes. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!

  • Vaughn Hozempa

    Well, the post is really the greatest on this worthy issue. I agree along with your conclusions and will thirstily look forward to your incoming updates. Saying thank you is not going to just be enough, for your phenomenal clarity within your writing. I am going to right away get your rss to be informed of any kind of posts. Good work and much success in your business endeavors!

  • Orpha Delpozo

    Thanks a bunch! That was very informative, I just Dugg your url.

  • [...] This or that kind of alcohol or sulfite or SLS or – wow – I was so disappointed that there really wasn’t [...]

  • Amanda

    I completely agree. I’d been diagnosed with alopecia about 5 years ago – not exactly the news you want as a 19 yr old girl! The dermatologist was never too clear on why my scalp was always breaking out and attributed it to the Rogaine that he perscribed and we all chalked it up to ‘something to live with’. However, after my amazingly wonderful hairstylist did some research for me, she recommended a switch to sulfate-free shampoos. Within 2 months (between appointments), she saw such a significant change in my scalp that she started crying! It has made a huge difference in not only my scalp health, but my general overall emotional health as well (can you imagine being happy if you’re head has been constantly itchy for 5 years?). I’m slowly making the switch for sulfate-free products for the rest of my body – Burt’s Bees has fantastic body washes that are sulfate-free AND smell good! Fragrance AND my skin doesn’t break out? Perfect for this girly-girl!

  • SLS free shampoo has made a difference for me. After using a natural shampoo my hair is less brittle and smoother now.

  • DorsetGirl

    For years I had a foul metallic taste constantly in my mouth and sore gums all around. Some days it was so unpleasant I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. The day I realised my toothpaste contained Triclosan was the day I stopped using it and found a toothpaste without it. The new toothpaste also had no SLS or variants.

    The nasty taste disappeared immediately I used the new toothpaste, and my sore gums healed within two days.

    Unfortunately this toothpaste has now been withdrawn, and I’ve arrived here in the course of researching ingredients while trying to find a new toothpaste I’m willing to put in my children’s mouths. In the meantime, my gums are getting sore again because my local shops don’t have anything without SLS.

  • [...] teeth. Not only are most of those chemicals super harmful (just check your label for the notorious sodium lauryl sulfate) they are absorbed directly through the soft tissues in your mouth into your blood stream. [...]

  • Pat

    I am highly allergice to SLS. No dermatologist told me this I had to figure it out for myself. For months I listed in ingredients in products (pre-computer days) and found SLS was the common ingredient. In case it is of any help to anyone the only detergent I have found that I can use is Dreft powder. Don’t use the liquid. There is SLS in the liquid.

    I’m also allergic to nail polish.

  • hi

    I’ve just started reading about SLS becouse it seems as I’m allergic to it.
    I did notice that alot of the “orgenic”/”green” soups and shampoos I have, have SLS.
    shampoo bars (which I like) sometimes also have SLS so look at the label!

  • [...] A little different from that recipe – I’ll have to post it. But I use packaged shampoo (SLS-free), soap, other cleaning products (natural, organic, local when [...]

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