What Is SLS? Sorting Fact from Fiction

By Sher Warkentin in Natural Products

Understanding ingredients is vital to feeling comfortable with the personal care products you choose. But there can frequently be misinformation surrounding the safety and efficacy of certain ingredients. This is often the case for sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Discover the truth behind the misconceptions about this commonly used ingredient.

What Is SLS?

SLS is the sodium salt of lauryl sulfate. Many personal care products contain this ingredient. It also goes by a few different names you might see on product labels, including sodium dodecyl sulfate, dodecyl sulfate, sodium salt, or sodium n-dodecyl sulfate.

SLS is derived from either vegetable or petroleum sources. Vegetable sources, such as coconut oil, can be split into two components: glycerin and fatty acids. One of these fatty acid components is lauric acid. The lauric acid is hydrogenated to form lauryl alcohol and then combined with sulfur to form sodium lauryl sulfate.

Many varieties of natural toothpaste contain SLS. It acts as a dispersant and foaming agent in the toothpaste, helping to separate particles in the formula and distribute the other active ingredients while you brush. SLS is also used in products as an emulsifier, which helps water and oil-based ingredients stay mixed. Additionally, it helps particles wash away more easily when you rinse.

Unfortunately, sodium lauryl sulfate sometimes suffers from a case of mistaken identity. It is often confused with sodium laureth sulfate. Although the names are nearly the same, the two ingredients are rather different.

SLS can be made from naturally derived sources.

5 Myths about SLS

SLS has developed a negative reputation for various claims, from skin irritation to questions over its safety. However, scientific research busts the myths surrounding this commonly used ingredient.

1. It Is Not a Naturally Derived Ingredient

While SLS can be derived from petroleum, it can also be derived from natural vegetable oils, such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil. Naturally derived ingredients may undergo processing, but this can be done in a manner that supports human and environmental health.

2. It Causes Skin Irritation

SLS has gotten a bad rap as a skin irritant. While certain products containing SLS can be skin irritants, that doesn't mean that all products using SLS are irritants. According to research published in Environmental Health Insights, SLS can be irritating if used in large concentrations and left on the skin for long periods of time. When products containing SLS are formulated properly, they can be mild and non-irritating to the skin.

3. It's Not Safe to Ingest

You may have concerns about the safety of any product that enters your mouth, even toothpaste. Although toothpaste isn't meant to be swallowed, there is always a chance, especially with young kids. While raw SLS in its highest concentrations may pose a risk, the same could be said for many ingredients, even sodium chloride—otherwise known as table salt—as the Environmental Health Insights report points out. When SLS is concentrated to levels set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is approved as a food additive.

4. It's Considered Unsafe for Use in Personal Care Products

SLS has a long history of use in personal care products, and there is plenty of scientific support for its safety. Not only has the FDA approved it to be an additive to food, but the European Union also permits its use in all cosmetics with no restrictions. The US Department of Health and Human Services evaluated the safety of SLS in 2003 and concluded that SLS is safe for use in oral care products. The Environmental Protection Agency categorizes SLS as a surfactant on its Safer Choice list and verifies it to be of low concern.

5. It Causes Eye Irritation

SLS can irritate the eyes when applied directly and in high concentrations, just like many other ingredients. However, as the Environmental Health Insights study explains, these claims and others that link SLS with cataract formation have shown no relevant correlation to the amount and concentration of SLS found in household products. In other words, there is no scientific evidence to show that SLS used at concentration levels found in these products causes harm to the eyes.

You can feel confident in choosing products with SLS on the label.

Alternatives to SLS

While SLS is considered safe for use, there are alternative options if you have a known sensitivity to the ingredient. SLS-free toothpastes use ingredients such as lauryl glucoside and sodium cocoyl glutamate—both derived from coconut or palm kernel oil and corn—as dispersants and foaming agents.

You already know that reading labels is a vital step in shopping for natural products. Now, when you see sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS listed among the ingredients in natural toothpaste, you can feel comfortable understanding its safety and efficacy. Now, you know the answer to: "What is SLS?"

Learn more about the ingredients that go into personal care products on the Naturally Good Products board from @tomsofmaine on Pinterest!

Image Sources: Unsplash | Unsplash | Sher Warkentin

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

Sodium lauryl sulfate is an often misunderstood ingredient. The truth is you can feel confident choosing products containing SLS because science supports that it's considered safe for use.