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Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Bad For You?

Also Known As: SLS



Short answer

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a widely used surfactant in cleaning and personal care products known for its cleansing and foaming properties. While it's generally considered safe for use in the small amounts found in these products, SLS can cause skin and eye irritation, particularly in individuals with sensitive skin or at higher concentrations. Environmentally, SLS is biodegradable but may have some aquatic toxicity. There's no direct evidence linking SLS to cancer. SLS-free products might be a gentler alternative for sensitive individuals or those preferring milder ingredients.



Long answer

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: Uses in Consumer Products

When wandering through the aisles of your go-to grocery store or scrolling through the digital shelves of your favorite online retailers, you're likely to encounter sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) more often than you might realize. This ingredient is a surfactant—a compound that reduces surface tension—which allows it to act as a powerful cleanser and foaming agent. Its versatility means it pops up in a plethora of products we use every day. Let's dive into the common uses of SLS and understand its widespread application.

Cleaning Products:

  • Laundry detergents: Thanks to its ability to break down oils and grease, SLS is a common ingredient in laundry detergents, helping our clothes emerge spotless from the wash.
  • Dishwashing liquids: SLS's prowess at cutting through the grime makes it a stalwart in dishwashing liquids, giving dishes that satisfying squeaky-clean finish.
  • All-purpose cleaners: The versatility of SLS extends to the realm of all-purpose cleaners, allowing us to tackle diverse cleaning tasks with a single product.

Personal Care Products:

  • Toothpaste: Known for its foaming action, SLS helps to distribute the toothpaste's active ingredients evenly around the mouth and aids in plaque removal.
  • Shampoos: SLS works to effectively remove sweat, oil, and product buildup, contributing to that refreshing lather we all enjoy during our hair care routine.
  • Body washes and soaps: The lathering effect that SLS provides enhances the cleaning power and sensory experience of body washes and bar soaps alike.
  • Facial cleansers: Targeting facial oils and makeup, SLS in facial cleansers helps leave a clean canvas, ready for skincare or cosmetics.

Beauty and Grooming Products:

  • Face masks and scrubs: To aid in exfoliation and to ensure a thorough cleanse, SLS is often added to these skin-pampering products.
  • Shaving foam: The foaming effect provided by SLS in shaving foams creates a smooth glide for the razor and helps prevent skin irritation.

While SLS is a champion of cleanliness and foam, its widespread use has also raised a few eyebrows in regard to its safety—prompting investigation and discussion among health professionals, researchers, and consumers alike. As with many chemical agents, the context in which SLS is used—including concentration and frequency of exposure—plays a seminal role in determining its impact on our health. Therefore, it's essential to consider scientific studies and expert consensus when evaluating the safety profile of products containing sodium lauryl sulfate.

Furthermore, it's worth noting that SLS is often confused with its close relative, sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), which undergoes a process called ethoxylation to become less harsh. Although SLES is considered slightly milder than SLS, it's important not to conflate the two, as they have unique properties and safety considerations.

In our busy daily lives, convenience often wins, but so should mindfulness when it comes to product ingredients. Whether it's choosing a toothpaste for sensitive teeth or a laundry detergent for our baby's clothes, being informed about SLS can help us make choices that align with our health and well-being priorities.

Skin Irritation and SLS: Assessing the Risks

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a surfactant commonly found in a variety of personal care products such as shampoos, toothpastes, and soaps. It is known for its ability to create a lathering effect, which helps to cleanse and remove oils and dirt from the skin. However, its widespread use has raised questions about its safety, especially concerning skin irritation.

When exploring the relationship between SLS and skin irritation, it's important to consider the concentration and frequency of use. Here's what some of the research tells us:

  • A study published in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology (now known as the International Journal of Toxicology) revealed that SLS can cause irritation at concentrations of 2% or higher, which is higher than what's typically found in most consumer products.
  • Another important factor is the condition of the skin prior to exposure. Damaged or compromised skin can be more susceptible to irritants like SLS.
  • Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to SLS can lead to irritation, even at lower concentrations, especially in individuals with sensitive skin or certain skin conditions such as eczema.

Interestingly, some researchers suggest that SLS-induced irritation may not necessarily be due to the compound itself, but rather to the way it strips the skin of its natural oils, potentially leading to dryness and irritation. This is more likely to occur in products that are left on the skin for extended periods, or not rinsed off properly.

It's also important to consider individual variation. What might cause irritation in one person's skin might not affect another's. Professionals like dermatologists can offer personalized advice on what ingredients may be best to avoid if you have sensitive or reactive skin.

For those concerned about potential irritation from SLS, there are various strategies you might consider:

  • Look for products labeled as "SLS-free" if you have experienced irritation from products containing SLS in the past.
  • Opt for products with milder surfactants, which may be less likely to cause irritation. These include alternatives like sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) or sulfosuccinates.
  • Practice patch testing with new products to determine sensitivity before using them more broadly.
  • Maintain a healthy skin barrier with proper hydration and moisturization to guard against irritants.

Ultimately, the evidence suggests that SLS may cause skin irritation for some individuals, particularly in higher concentrations and with prolonged use. Paying attention to your own skin's response to products containing SLS and seeking out milder alternatives if necessary can help you maintain healthy, irritation-free skin.

SLS Exposure and Potential Systemic Effects

When we're talking about substances like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), you may wonder how a compound primarily used for its cleaning and emulsifying properties could affect the body beyond the skin level. To understand the potential systemic effects of SLS, we need to look at the science behind its absorption and what researchers have uncovered.

Firstly, it's important to recognize that topical application of products containing SLS can lead to dermal absorption. However, the extent to which SLS penetrates the skin and enters the systemic circulation is a subject of scientific inquiry. According to a study published in the Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, while SLS can penetrate the outer layers of the skin, systemic absorption is generally considered to be minimal. The skin's barrier function typically prevents substantial absorption into deeper tissues and the bloodstream.

Yet, this doesn't rule out systemic exposure entirely. Oral care products, such as toothpaste, often contain SLS, which introduces the possibility of ingestion. While most of the substance would be spat out, accidental swallowing could occur. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) notes that ingested SLS is rapidly absorbed and excreted via the kidneys, with minimal bioaccumulation.

But what does this mean for your body? Systemic effects would theoretically occur from substantial absorption leading to internal exposure. A review of the literature suggests that while instances of irritation or allergy can be localized (e.g., contact dermatitis), the risk of systemic toxicity from typical cosmetic uses of SLS appears to be low. Nevertheless, certain groups like children or individuals with compromised skin barrier function may be at higher risk of adverse effects.

Moreover, the potential for long-term systemic effects is an area where more research is needed. As a preventative measure, some experts advocate for the cautious use of SLS-containing products, especially for individuals with repeated or prolonged exposure, sensitive skin, or pre-existing dermatological conditions.

It's also worth considering the cumulative effect of multiple products containing SLS. Many of us start our day showering with an SLS-based body wash, followed by brushing our teeth, and perhaps washing our hands throughout the day with similar soaps. While each product might have minimal risk, it's the overall exposure that might warrant a second glance.

  • Always rinse thoroughly after using products containing SLS to minimize dermal absorption.
  • Consider using SLS-free toothpaste to reduce the risk of ingestion, especially in children who are more prone to swallowing toothpaste.
  • Pay attention to signs of skin irritation or sensitivity and switch to milder alternatives if necessary.
  • If you have a compromised skin barrier, consult with a healthcare provider on the most appropriate products for your skin.

As part of a holistic approach to wellness, being mindful of the ingredients in your personal care products is crucial. By understanding your body's response and making informed choices, you can navigate potential risks while maintaining a lifestyle that's both healthy and satisfying.

Environmental Concerns Associated with SLS Manufacturing and Usage

Let's dive into the environmental implications of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), a common surfactant found in many household cleaning and personal care products. While our primary focus might be the direct health impacts of substances like SLS on our bodies, it's also essential to consider the broader ecological footprint of the products we use. After all, a holistic approach to health includes taking care of the planet that sustains us. Here's what you need to know about the environmental concerns linked to SLS.

Bioaccumulation and Aquatic Toxicity

One of the pressing issues with substances like SLS is their potential to bioaccumulate in the environment. SLS is known to be moderately toxic to aquatic organisms. According to a study published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, SLS can accumulate in the bodies of aquatic species, disrupting ecosystems and potentially contributing to biodiversity loss. It suggests that even at low concentrations, SLS can be harmful to fish and other wildlife, affecting their reproduction and growth rates.


On a positive note, SLS is generally considered to be biodegradable. This means it has the ability to break down into simpler substances by biological means, such as by bacteria. However, the rate of biodegradation can vary depending on environmental conditions, which could mean that in certain ecosystems, SLS may persist longer than desired and thus pose a threat to wildlife and plant life.

Manufacturing Footprint

The production process of SLS also raises environmental concerns. SLS is derived from petroleum, palm oil, or coconut oil. The extraction and processing of these raw materials can lead to deforestation (in the case of palm oil), greenhouse gas emissions, and the depletion of natural resources. Responsible sourcing of these raw materials is crucial to reduce the ecological impact. Organizations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) work towards promoting the use of sustainably-sourced palm oil, which could potentially minimize the environmental footprint of SLS-containing products.

Ecosystem Disruption

Unregulated discharge of SLS into waterways during manufacturing or post-consumer use poses the risk of ecosystem disruption. High levels of surfactants like SLS can decrease the surface tension of water bodies, which is critical for the oxygen exchange needed by fish and aquatic plants. This alteration can lead to a decrease in the water's ability to support marine life, having a domino effect on the entire aquatic ecosystem.

Encouraging Sustainable Practices

As consumers, we're not powerless in this scenario. Opting for products with SLS that are certified as environmentally friendly or that come from companies with strong sustainability initiatives can make a difference. Using such products responsibly, and in moderation, can help mitigate the potential environmental damage. Also, being vocal about our preferences for sustainable ingredients and supporting legislative efforts that regulate manufacturing effluence can also steer the industry towards more eco-friendly practices.

Overall, while SLS does have some redeeming biodegradable qualities, its environmental impact can't be overlooked. From its manufacturing process to its usage and eventual disposal, SLS can contribute to ecological disturbances that may have long-term consequences. In our endeavour to maintain a balanced and health-conscious lifestyle, considering the products we use and their environmental repercussions is an essential step towards truly holistic health—both personal and planetary.

Navigating Myths vs. Facts: Cancer Risk and SLS

One of the most prevalent concerns about Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is its purported link to cancer. It's important to separate the myths from the facts when examining this topic so that you can make informed decisions about the products you choose to use. Let's delve into the scientific evidence to clarify this issue.

Myth: SLS is a known carcinogen.

Fact: Despite widespread rumors, there is no direct evidence to support that SLS is a carcinogen. The confusion may stem from the fact that SLS can be a skin irritant in high concentrations, which has led to a broader assumption that it could cause more serious harm. Agencies such as the American Cancer Society have expressly clarified that SLS is not recognized as a cancer-causing agent.

Myth: Products with SLS should be avoided at all costs.

Fact: While SLS can cause skin and eye irritation, it is widely considered safe for use in household products and cosmetics when formulated correctly. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel, an independent body of scientific experts, has assessed the safety of SLS and found it to be safe as long as it is used as intended in products designed for brief, discontinuous use, followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin.

Myth: All health organizations unite against SLS usage.

Fact: Major health organizations including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) do not classify SLS as a carcinogen. These organizations routinely review and assess ingredients for safety, including any potential cancer risk.

It's essential to address these myths with robust scientific research and expert analysis. Although the concern about SLS and cancer risk persists in the public domain, the weight of scientific evidence does not place SLS in the category of carcinogenic substances. Whenever you encounter shocking claims concerning any ingredient, it's always advisable to look to peer-reviewed studies and reputable health institutions for verification.

Remember that concentration, duration of contact, and individual sensitivity can impact how any substance affects your health. If you have a known allergy or sensitivity to SLS, it's prudent to find alternate products that work for you. As for cancer risks, the current consensus among researchers points to no direct link between SLS and cancer development. Education is your tool to make empowered choices about the products you use. Stay informed, stay curious, and don't hesitate to reach out to a healthcare provider if concerns about specific ingredients arise.

SLS-Free Products: Are They a Healthier Choice?

When it comes to selecting personal care items, you might spot a common theme: the rise of SLS-free products. SLS, or Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, is a detergent found in many conventional shampoos, toothpastes, and soaps. But are products without SLS inherently healthier for you? Let's explore the evidence and considerations that may guide your choices.

Understanding SLS and Its Alternatives

SLS is known for its ability to create lather, which can give a satisfying sense of cleanliness. However, concerns have been raised about its potential to irritate the skin and mucous membranes. For individuals with sensitive skin or conditions like eczema, SLS may exacerbate symptoms.

Alternatives to SLS include substances like Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, which is derived from coconut and palm oils and considered gentler on the skin. Another common substitution is Sodium Coco Sulfate, which is also derived from coconut oil and tends to be less irritating than SLS.

Health Implications of SLS Exposure

Research has shown that SLS can be an irritant at higher concentrations or with prolonged exposure. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology suggested that SLS could cause irritation when used in concentrations of 2% or higher, which is more than what's typically used in personal care products. That said, the same research indicates that it is safe in the concentrations found in most consumer products.

However, the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology published findings indicating that SLS might disrupt the skin's natural oil balance and compromise its protective barrier. This could potentially lead to increased susceptibility to environmental toxins and allergens.

Potential Benefits of SLS-Free Products

  • Reduced Skin Irritation: Those with sensitive skin may experience less irritation and dryness with SLS-free products since they tend to be milder.
  • Improved Hair Health: Without the stripping effects of SLS, hair may retain more natural oils, leading to improved moisture and less frizz.
  • Environmental Considerations: Many SLS-free products are also made with a focus on environmental sustainability, using biodegradable ingredients and eco-friendly packaging.

Considering Personal Needs

Choosing SLS-free products ultimately comes down to personal preference and individual health needs. People with sensitive skin or those looking to avoid synthetic ingredients might opt for SLS-free options to minimize any potential adverse effects. It's important to read labels carefully, as some products may still contain other harsh detergents or chemicals even if they are SLS-free. Additionally, consult with a dermatologist or healthcare provider if you have a history of skin sensitivities or allergic reactions.

In summary, while SLS itself is considered safe for use in personal care products by various health authorities, SLS-free products can offer a milder alternative for those with specific skin concerns or preferences. Remember, a simple switch in your beauty routine could make all the difference in your skin's well-being and your personal comfort.

Frequently asked questions

Yes, there are plant-based alternatives to SLS, such as Decyl Glucoside and Lauryl Glucoside, which are derived from natural sources like corn glucose and coconut oil, and are known for their mildness and good skin compatibility. These alternatives are suitable for individuals seeking products with gentler, renewable ingredients and can be found in many natural or organic personal care brands.

Currently, there is no direct evidence to suggest that the use of SLS in consumer products contributes to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is primarily linked to the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture. SLS functions as a surfactant and does not have antibiotic properties. Nonetheless, it's important to use all products responsibly to avoid unintended consequences on health and the environment.

If you have a confirmed sulfate allergy, it would be prudent to avoid all sulfate-containing products, including those with SLS. While sulfates are a group of chemicals, and not all may cause a reaction, those with allergies may be more likely to react to such compounds. Always check the ingredient labels and consider hypoallergenic or sulfate-free products as safer options. Consulting with an allergist or dermatologist for personalized advice is also recommended.

Yes, there is a difference between the environmental impact of SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) and SLES (Sodium Laureth Sulfate). SLES undergoes a process called ethoxylation which makes it milder and potentially less harmful to aquatic life. However, the ethoxylation process can generate 1,4-dioxane, a substance that may be environmentally persistent and has raised concerns due to its potential as an environmental pollutant. Overall, both substances are biodegradable, but awareness and responsible use are essential to minimizing their ecological footprint.

Ask a question about Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • skin irritation
  • dryness
  • eye irritation
  • stripping skin of natural oils

Possible long-term side effects

  • possible increased susceptibility to toxins/allergens with disrupted skin barrier

Ingredients to be aware of

  • sls
  • sles


  • cleanliness
  • lathering effect
  • removal of oils, dirt, and product buildup
  • enhanced sensory experience of products

Healthier alternatives

  • products labeled 'sls-free'
  • alternatives like sodium laureth sulfate (sles), sodium lauryl sulfoacetate, sodium coco sulfate
  • sustainably-sourced ingredients

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 12-30-2023

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 12-30-2023

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