Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate & Foaming Cleansers
Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate have gotten a bad reputation in the beauty industry, yet they’re in thousands of cosmetic products — some you’re probably using.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are types of sulfates (as their names suggest) derived from coconut oil, palm kernel oil, or petroleum oil.
SLS and SLES pose a threat to the delicate balance of your skin microbiome — and increase your chances of experiencing skin irritation. Today we’re breaking down what exactly sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are, how they work, and the effect they can have on the body.
What Are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)?
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are part of the sulfate family, primarily used in products like face washes, soaps, body washes, and shampoos — but are also found in dental care products and other common personal care products.
When considering sodium lauryl sulfate vs. sodium laureth sulfate, SLS and SLES are almost identical in chemical makeup. Sodium laureth sulfate contains one extra oxygen atom compared to sodium lauryl sulfate. That’s it!
Both ingredients are well-known and documented skin irritants; however, sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is known for being less harsh and irritating... but still poses its own risks. Sodium lauryl sulfate binds to skin proteins more and has a higher chance of causing a reaction.
SLS and SLES are both used primarily as foaming agents to create more lather. Many people prefer the experience of foaming products — even though foam isn’t needed to create a more effective cleaning solution.
SLS and SLES are also surfactants. Surfactants make water molecules “slippery” so they don’t stick together and as a result, break surface tension.
This reaction allows substances to mix even if they wouldn’t normally. In the context of cleaning and personal care products, this means with the inclusion of surfactants, these products can more easily attach to dirt, oil, and debris to rinse it away more effectively.
Additional Chemicals & Sensitive Skin
With sensitive skin, you want to look for topical products with as few ingredients as possible. The more chemicals added to a skincare product, the more chances you have of reacting negatively to one of them.
Many of these added chemicals are for non-functional, aesthetic purposes. They may increase shelf life, improve the color, texture, or smell, and create foam that enhances the user experience. Yet, they’re not necessary for the product to perform its intended job.
Because additives pose a risk of skin irritation and aren’t necessary to create an effective end-product, less is simply more when it comes to nurturing sensitive skin.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate’s Impact on Sensitive Skin
You’d like to be able to assume that because SLS and SLES are in so many products today that means they’re safe to use on your skin. However, research and anecdotal evidence say otherwise.
In fact, SLS is so well-documented as an irritant that it’s used as a positive control to determine how irritating new skincare products are comparatively. Wild, right?
Researchers from Germany found that 41.8% of patients exposed to SLS had an irritant reaction. Oddly enough, another study found that the warmer the water used with SLS, the greater the level of irritation.
That means when you’re using that SLS-containing shampoo or body wash in a hot, relaxing shower, you’re only increasing your irritation level!
While sodium lauryl sulfate is a known irritant, there’s no evidence supporting that it’s carcinogenic — as you may read elsewhere on the internet.
More Foaming Doesn’t Mean More Effective
Let’s face it: Foam feels luxurious… and it can be a lot more fun for the kids. However, foam isn’t necessary to clean your home or your skin. In fact, just because a product foams doesn’t mean it’s more effective than non-foaming products at all.
Foaming is an added feature to make people feel like a product is more effective when it’s not necessary.
Are Foaming Cleansers Bad?
Foam and lather aren’t necessary to clean your skin, teeth, or home. Yet foam is in so many of the products that do just that.
When used on the skin, SLS used to create lather can:
- Throw off your skin’s pH
- Strip away healthy, natural oils
- Cause dehydration in the skin
- Weaken the skin’s protective barrier
- Unbalance the skin microbiome
The skin microbiome is a community of microorganisms that lives undetected by the human eye on the surface of your skin. The skin microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. On average, 1,000 various species of bacteria live in the skin microbiome — some good and some bad!
When dysbiosis, or a reduction in microbial diversity, occurs from the regular use of SLS, it reduces your body’s ability to fight off foreign invaders, inhibits its ability to regulate skin hydration, and can cause redness and irritation.
How? Because beneficial bacteria play a critical role in all of these functions.
In many cases, people with sensitive skin, eczema, rosacea, or even acne, may already be suffering from an imbalance of the skin microbiome, meaning the skin is more susceptible and less able to fight off further irritation or inflammation from harsh ingredients.
So, are foaming cleansers bad? Well, yes. Everyone could benefit from avoiding foaming cleansers containing sodium lauryl sulfate.
However, those with sensitive skin, eczema, rosacea, or other skin conditions should especially avoid this ingredient.
If you experience any of these skin conditions and use SLS, you may find your redness, dryness, and irritation worsening.
Sulfate-Free & Non-Foaming Alternatives
Luckily if you have sensitive skin, there are more sulfate-free skincare products becoming available each year. You don’t have to settle for sulfates and irritation when it comes to cleansing your skin.
At Gladskin, all of our personal care products are free of sulfates, harsh soaps, fragrance, parabens, drying alcohols, preservatives, and other harsh additives.
If you’re looking for a non-foaming cleanser, try the Gladskin Body Wash for Sensitive Skin.
Face wash without sodium lauryl sulfate? Check out this face wash.
Shampoos without sodium laureth sulfate? This shampoo bar for sensitive scalp and skin gives you clean, shiny hair while caring for your skin microbiome.
Choosing non-foaming, sodium lauryl sulfate-free products helps you protect your skin’s natural barrier, lessen your chances of irritation, and avoid flare-ups of any potential pre-existing skin conditions like rosacea or eczema.
Foam may be fun, but we’re afraid it’s time to leave the bubbles behind.
Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate have gotten a bad reputation for good reason. SLS and SLES both pose a threat to the delicate balance of your skin microbiome — and increase your chances of experiencing skin irritation.
Luckily, you have plenty of sulfate-free products to choose from… You just have to read the ingredients labels closely to find them. Or, choose Gladskin. All of our products are sulfate-free, so you can have fresh, clean skin while caring for your sensitive skin microbiome.