Does all this talk about sulfates, surfactants and suds have you in a lather? What to do since those culprits Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) pop up in the ingredients list on so many bottles of your favourite hair and body care products? And, really, how bad can they be?
As it turns out, reports on the effects of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and its alter ego Sodium Laureth Sulfate, both pro and con ,, can be found in thousands of studies.
The consensus is that they don’t seem to pose an actual threat to your health and Health Canada, the European Union and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) consider SLS and SLES to be safe ingredients.
However, it has been found to definitely cause irritation of the skin and eyes and is routinely used as a standard skin irritant in patch testing.
That is, laboratories use it to irritate skin (called an insult test) on test animals and humans so that they may then test healing agents to see how effective they are on the irritated skin.
Here, we are most concerned about its effect on babies and small children.
SLS - History and Uses
SLS started its career as an industrial degreasing agent and garage floor cleaner, and is now widely used in shampoos, body washes, toothpastes and soaps. Oh – and it’s still used in everything from detergents to car washes.
Why? Because it’s cheap and effective!
Pick up a cross section of these products next time you visit the supermarket and you’ll find SLS or SLES on up to 90% of the ingredient labels.
SLS is both a surfactant (a substance that allows the product to foam) and a detergent (cleanser). SLES is a milder version.
SLS and SLES dissolve and emulsify oils on your skin and hair the exact same way they dissolve grease off your car’s engine. That is what causes the drying effect. It denatures skin proteins that allows it and other environmental contaminants to attack the skin's lower more sensitive layers, irritating and eroding the skin and leaving it rough and pitted.
SLS and SLES are also absorbed into the body directly through your skin. Look at your skin as your body's largest organ, one that not only perspires (sweats), but also drinks in (absorbs) nutrients.
Along with inhalation, ingestion and injection, dermal absorption is a route of exposure for toxic substances and a route of administration for medications (think transdermal nicotine patches).
Give Love to the Skin You're In
When you look at your skin, you think of it as keeping bad things like infection and chemicals out, right? Yup and in its healthy state with an intact lipid barrier, it does a great job. But it also keeps important things in that keep the skin looking and feeling healthy - like water.
You’ve heard of the epidermis – the outer layer of the skin. We are concerned with the stratum corneum, the outermost and very thin layer of the epidermis, consisting of 15-20 layers of flattened dead skin cells held together by a sort of “glue” consisting of lipids, fats, cholesterol and other components.
It’s commonly called the lipid barrier and protects the skin from the loss of moisture. If it’s compromised, it can result in dry, scaly and cracked skin, dermatitis, acne, eczema, congested skin and can even compromise the immune system of the skin.
In adults, water loss occurs due to external factors such as low humidity and exposure to cold and wind as well as detergents, excessive use of soap and water, solvents and irritating chemicals like SLS and SLES.
But How About Baby?
Baby’s skin starts out perfect – but its lipid barrier is quite fragile. That's why how we cleanse Baby is hugely important - particularly in Baby's first two years.
Bathing, itself, has a primary goal – to maintain the health and hygiene of the skin. It’s no different in infants and small children, except that their skin can be more easily compromised.
It’s necessary to cleanse, yes, but the products used must be gentle enough to maintain the integrity of the skin barrier and also the normal flora of the skin that protects it from harmful bacteria.
Especially in areas where you have hard water, combining the hard water with soap or harsh detergents can result in damage to the skin barrier and can even lead to baby developing Atopic Dermatitis.
According to Neonatal and Infant Dermatology by Lawrence F. Eichenfield, Ilona J. Frieden, Andrea Zaenglein and Erin Mathes:
“Harsh surfactants like SLS can damage the skin barrier and irritate the skin, whereas some surfactant complexes are as mild as water.
Current guidelines for the treatment of AD (Atopic Dermatitis) recommend the avoidance of soap and harsh detergents, such as SLS along with other negative environmental factors."
SLS and SLES-Free Baby Products
For example, Baja Baby Shampoo uses ECO-certified glucosides instead of sulfates - in fact, all the ingredients are derived from natural products. The shampoo is so mild that even the most sensitive skin can be bathed frequently.
Does this mean that you throw out all the products that you or your family use daily that contain SLS/SLES? Probably not unless you have dry, flaky skin and might be wondering why your lotions don't relieve it.
Perhaps it's time to switch to SLS/SLES-free products instead!