Somewhere along the line, we became totally obsessed with suds. Who could blame us? Virtually every shampoo, body wash and bar soap commercial in the history of television has us lusting for that sweet lather. Here’s the thing though, just because (insert your favorite raspberry scented shampoo brand here) shows us we need foam, doesn’t mean it’s true, and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s safe.
Enter, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). These are two chemically derived foaming agents that you’ll find across the personal care product board from children’s bubble bath, face wash, shampoo, and yes, your favorite minty toothpaste. Both of these chemicals are used primarily as emulsifiers (to keep ingredients from separating) and surfactants (to lather and break down oils). They’re traditionally extracted from the fatty acids in coconut oil or palm oil, though more commonly (and cheaply) they're extracted from petroleum. They’re inexpensive to produce and because we’ve all been conditioned to think that our products need to whip up into a furious foam in order for them to work, they’re literally all over our bathrooms (and kitchens, living rooms, cars...you get the point).
But are they hazardous to our health?
The jury is still out on whether or not these substances are truly safe or truly harmful, and thanks to a confusing rumor mill of misinterpreted studies, it’s almost impossible for the average person to get their hands on the facts. For now, we’ll tell you what we do know about these substances, why you don’t really need them, and why they’re restricted at Follain.
While some internet sources claim that these ingredients can cause the “C” word, there has yet to be a conclusive study performed that confirms this claim. What we do know is that SLS is a skin irritant, and we know this for sure because it's widely used in product testing studies to deliberately irritate the skin to test the efficacy of products designed to heal skin (insert eye rolling emoji here). SLS has been shown to cause excessive pain and redness to the eyes in higher concentrations, and has also been shown to be corrosive to the skin overtime. So, those with receding gums and irritated scalp and skin might want to turn over the bottle to see if SLS has worked its way into their daily routine. SLS readily penetrates the skin, and is included on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known or suspected by the state to cause cancer or birth defects. It should also be noted that the same ingredient that is used make your bath bubbly is also used to degrease car engines and clean floors, so, there’s that.
Because of the proven irritation of SLS to the skin, scientists sought out to make it less harsh by putting it through a little process called ethoxylation. The result: Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). [Side note: anytime an ingredient has “eth” in the name it has likely been ethoxylated, so keep an eye out for that on your ingredient lists!] Even a five year old could have predicted that if you try to solve a problem the quick and dirty way, you’re probably going to create a bigger one, and that’s exactly what happened. Depending on the manufacturing process (which we’re never privy to), the conversion process from SLS to SLES often leads to the contamination of the chemical 1-4 Dioxane. Now, there’s absolutely no blurry lines with this one - 1-4 Dioxane is a known carcinogen, hangs out in our bodies for pretty much ever, and you’ll never see it show up on a label because it’s not an intentional ingredient. We know this is a bi-product that we don’t want to mess around with and because it’s nearly impossible to know whether our products are contaminated with it, our modus operandi is to avoid SLS and SLES all together.
The good news is you can still get your daily dose of suds (albeit not as extreme) with completely safe ingredients. Ever heard of gold old fashioned soap? Well that’s a surfactant too, and it’s been used safely for centuries. One of our favorite safer suds is our very own castile soap (in refillable bottles to boot!) made from saponified organic oils. The term saponification is the name given to the chemical reaction that takes place when a vegetable oil is mixed with a strong alkali (aka: sodium hydroxide). It’s a safe and simple process the produces the most gentle, effective, and lightly lathering cleaners out there.
African black soap is another fantastic alternative and is the surfactant of choice in many of Josh Rosebrook’s products. Made from the ash of harvested plants mixed with oils, african black soap foams, breaks down oils, and is even known to soften the appearance of fine lines and blemishes. There are a number of other safe foaming ingredients out there and it’s important to understand you definitely don’t have to sacrifice your health and safety for bubbles.
Making the shift away from SLS and SLES starts with ditching the idea that every cleaning product you put on your body needs to explode into a sky-high lather. It’s a shift in mindset that's sometimes harder to adopt than it is to just pick up a safer shampoo. Whether or not these foaming agents are officially unsafe is still TBD but our general perspective about all potential toxic ingredients applies: ingredients like these have cumulative, long term effects on our bodies and repeated exposure (as in multiple times a day) is a real concern. Are these ingredients alone going to seriously harm you? Maybe not. But if they have no real purpose, and there are safer options out there, then why roll the dice?
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
The International Journal of Toxicology
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Natural Health Information Center