Cosmetic products like toothpaste, body wash, cleansers, shampoo, and even household cleaners or detergents commonly contain sodium lauryl sulfate as one of the key ingredients. Sodium lauryl sulfate is essentially a synthetic organic compound. It is used as a highly effective surfactant or foaming agent which easily removes oily stains and residues.
The National Institute of Health has declared sodium lauryl sulfate as a non-carcinogenic compound. Additionally, it is considered safe in consumer cleaning products. Although sodium lauryl sulfate is a valuable addition for stain removal and effective cleaning, it may have certain risk factors associated with it. Oral conditions like stomatitis and mouth sores can react aggressively when contacted with products containing sodium lauryl sulfate.
Many people may also develop an allergy to sodium lauryl sulfate. This states that sodium lauryl sulfate may not be a toxic compound but can cause skin irritation and inflammation. Let’s continue to read the article and understand the various risk factors related to the use of sodium lauryl sulfate.
What is sodium lauryl sulfate?
Sodium lauryl sulfate is an organic as well as a synthetic compound which is commonly used in skincare and household products. (1) Most of the cosmetic products contain 50% emulsifier as compared to household products, which provide a level of 30% of the emulsifier. Natural sodium lauryl sulfate is a combination of plant or petroleum-based lauryl alcohol with sulfur trioxide. Sodium lauryl sulfate acts as a surfactant or foaming agent to increase the efficacy of the product.
What is the purpose of sodium lauryl sulfate?
The surfactant action of sodium lauryl sulfate helps to lower the surface tension between ingredients. It activates the foaming and cleansing properties of the product and makes it easier to remove oil-based stains. A milder and less irritating alternative to sodium lauryl sulfate is sodium Laureth sulfate.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is primarily found in all the house cleaning products. Additionally, many cosmetic or skincare products also contain low concentrations of sodium lauryl sulfate. These products are listed as follows –
- Dental care products like toothpaste, teeth whitening gels and mouthwash
- Skincare products like hand cream, face mask, anti-itch cream, hair-removal cream, and sunscreen
- Bath products like bath oils and salts, body wash liquid and bubble bath solution
- Hair products like shampoo, conditioner, hair dye, dandruff reducing products and styling solutions
- Grooming products like shaving cream, lip balm, hand sanitizer, makeup remover, and face cleansers or exfoliants
- Household cleaners
Another function of sodium lauryl sulfate is to act as a food additive like an emulsifier or a thickening agent. Some of the food products that contain sodium lauryl sulfate are marshmallows, dried egg products, and dry beverage bases.
What are the risks associated with sodium lauryl sulfate?
The Food and Drug Administration has declared sodium lauryl sulfate as a safe food additive. Additionally, it is a safe compound in household cleaning products. However, there are some risks associated with sodium lauryl sulfate when used topically in cosmetic care products. Some of the prime risk factors are as follows –
A safety assessment study on sodium lauryl sulfate confirmed that this compound could be a potent skin irritant. Sodium lauryl sulfate usually strips the skin of its natural oils making it dry and prone to irritation. Severe skin reactions may include inflammatory response, itchy scalp, eczema, and dermatitis. Additionally, sodium lauryl sulfate can also irritate the eyes. (2)
Products that are directly applied to the skin should contain less than 1% concentration of sodium lauryl sulfate.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is thought to have two significant effects on the oral tissues –
- Dry mouth – There is no evidence that topical use of sodium lauryl sulfate can relieve dry mouth.
- Oral ulcers – Sodium lauryl sulfate can potentially worsen oral ulcers, mouth sores, and stomatitis due to its potent chemical properties.
What are the toxicity and safety concerns for sodium lauryl sulfate?
A key component of sodium lauryl sulfate is sulfur trioxide. At first, the term sulfur trioxide may seem alarming since sulfur is a known toxin. However, sulfur is neutralized while preparing sodium lauryl sulfate. While it may be considered as a non-toxic solution, the Center for Disease Control states that it is a combustible compound at high temperature. Moreover, on the burning of this solution, sodium lauryl sulfate can emit harmful toxins. (3)
For this reason, it is always advised to store any product containing sodium lauryl sulfate away from the reach of children. Additionally, store these products in a cool space which is not close to the drain. There is no clear conclusion regarding the toxicity of sodium lauryl sulfate. The National Institute of Health stated that ‘if the product is properly formulated and qualified, sodium lauryl sulfate does not pose any danger to human health and safety’ (4)
However, there are several SLS-free products that you can choose from, for example, fluoride and SLS-free toothpaste for kids. Talk to your dentist to know more about the safety concerns regarding sodium lauryl sulfate. Additionally, choose shampoos or skincare products that are made with essential oils to protect your skin from damage. Sodium coco sulfate is a great alternative – it is a coconut derivative which is less irritating than sodium lauryl sulfate.
Take away message
Sodium lauryl sulfate is one of the most common ingredients used in many cosmetic products like face creams, toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, body wash, and household cleaners. Typically, sodium lauryl sulfate acts as a surfactant and a foaming agent which helps to remove the oil-based stains easily from the surface.
Clinically, this compound has been declared as non-toxic and non-carcinogenic. However, it may cause skin irritation and oral conditions like dry mouth. If you are concerned about the use of SLS containing products, talk to your doctor about alternative options that may be gentle and safe for your skin. While choosing a product, read the ingredients on the back of the package to check if the product contains sodium lauryl sulfate.