What Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, and its evil counterpart Sodium Laureth Sulfate, are both incredibly strong detergents found in many personal care products and industrial cleaners including shampoo, soap, dish detergent, laundry soap, toothpaste, and more. For the sake of this article, I’ll be referring to the chemicals by their abbreviation, SLS and SLES.

How Is SLS Made?

To make SLS, chemists start with either petroleum or coconut oil, and through an elaborate chemical process, they extract out Lauryl Alcohol. Once the Lauryl Alcohol is extracted from either one of those sources, it’s combined in a lab with sulfur trioxide gas or chlorosulfuric acid, otherwise commonly known as Sulfuric Acid.

Once the Lauryl Alcohol has been treated with Sulfuric Acid, SLS is created, and because the chemical is inexpensive to produce, there’s no limit to the amount of products it’s included in. No matter which source SLS is derived from, whether its petroleum (the most common source), or coconut oil, the chemical process it goes through makes the end result equally dangerous.

Sodium Lauryl Suflate Vs. Sodium Laureth Sulfate

Sodium Laureth Sulfate, or SLES, is slightly less irritating than SLS, but only because it’s processed differently. To make SLES less irritating, chemists use a process known as “ethoxylation”, which is where you get the “eth” from in “laureth”. What this means is that chemists add Ethylene Oxide to the mixture, modifying the chemical structure which results in SLES, but because of this process, SLES can actually be more dangerous than SLS.

What is Ethylene Oxide?

Ethylene Oxide is a very flammable toxic gas used to make many industrial chemical products. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks Ethylene Oxide as a probable carcinogen and states that even acute exposure can cause nausea, vomiting, neurological disorders, skin irritation, reproductive effects, and increased risk of cancer.

Basically, manufacturers add Ethylene Oxide to make an ingredient milder because it’s a cheap alternative to paying more for natural, nourishing ingredients. The problem comes from the ethoxylation process which produces a byproduct called “1,4-dioxane”, a known cancer causing agent.

Other Types Of Sulfates

Because many consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers surrounding SLS and SLES, many manufacturers are switching to other types of sulfates in the hopes that we’ll be tricked into thinking they’re safer. Luckily, we know better. Here are some of the other dangerous sulfates to watch out for:

  • Sodium coco-sulfate
  • Sodium dodecyl sulfate
  • Sodium caprylic sulfate
  • Sodium capric sulfate
  • Sodium oleic sulfate
  • Sodium stearyl sulfate
  • Sodium myreth sulfate
  • Sodium dodecanesulfate
  • Sodium monododecyl sulfate
  • And many more.

What Types Of Products Are These Chemicals Used In?

SLS and SLES are most commonly known to be the main ingredient in shampoo, hence the increasing rise of “sulfate-free” products on the market today. If we only shampoo our hair once or twice, here and there, we may not see any harmful effects of these chemicals on our skin, but think about how many other products we come in contact with on a daily basis.

Here are just some of the most common products containing SLS:

  • Soaps/Children’s Soaps
  • Shampoos
  • Bubble-bath
  • Toothpaste
  • Mascara
  • Liquid Hand soap
  • Dish soap
  • Laundry detergent
  • Body wash
  • Stain Remover
  • Carpet Cleaner
  • Shave cream
  • Mouthwash
  • Skin cleanser
  • Moisture lotion/Moistureizer
  • Sun Screen/Sun Block

Whew, that’s a long list! Sadly, those are just some of the products that use SLS and SLES. Check the ingredients on your personal care and household products; you’ll be surprised at how many of them contain these dangerous chemicals.

The Health Dangers Of SLS

We covered a pretty decent amount of information surrounding how these chemicals are produced and the dangers of those processes, so now we’ll cover what health implications can come from using SLS in daily products.

Here are some very compelling reasons you should avoid using any products containing SLS: 

  • A Known Irritant  This chemicals can cause skin and eye irritation including rashes, dandruff, psoriasis, dermatitis, canker sores, bladder infections (from bubble baths), cataracts, and more.
  • Groundwater Pollution – SLS is toxic to fish and other animals and has the potential to accumulate in the bodies of them. It also goes undetected by many water treatment plants, meaning it ends up in our drinking water.
  • It’s Used As A Pesticide And Herbicide – SLS is commonly used as a pesticide and herbicide to kill insects and plants.
  • Emits Toxic Fumes When Heated – When SLS is heated, it releases Sodium and Sulfur Oxides fumes which are toxic to our health. Think about that when you shampoo your hair in a nice hot shower…
  • Helps Other Chemicals Enter The Body – The molecules in SLS are so small, they can penetrate the membranes of your cells, making it easier for other dangerous chemicals included with SLS to enter your body.

These are only a few of the dangerous health effects from using SLS and SLES, but it’s enough to warrant a second thought when using any products containing these ingredients.

Alternatives To SLS

Obviously it’s not going to be easy to avoid products made with these chemicals since they’re found in so many of our daily products, but you can start to take steps to eliminate them from your life. One of the first steps I took was changing my shampoo, since it was something I used on an almost daily basis.

There are several “natural” shampoos on the market today, but not all of them contain all natural ingredients. Some of them still include ingredients that are just as harmful to us as SLS and SLES, so the only way to truly avoid these chemicals is to make your own shampoo at home. I have a great recipe for a homemade natural shampoo that really works, and it’s pretty easy to make.

If you’re looking to buy a natural shampoo, there are only a few I came across that seem decent enough to try, but as always, do your research and check those ingredients! Here are a few natural shampoos I found with limited and mostly natural ingredients:

Bottom Line

You’re on the right track to getting rid of these toxic and harmful chemicals out of your life, but it can be intimidating on where to start. Take your time and research any ingredient you don’t recognize on a product to see whether or not it’s safe before you decide to use it.

While there are many natural alternatives on the market designed to replace the harmful ones, the best option is to make these products at home. It does take some time and effort, but you’ll have better peace of mind knowing that safe ingredients are going into them.

Do you worry about SLS in your products? Do you use any alternatives? Share with us below!

The Shocking Health Dangers Of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate was last modified: by


  1. I’ve been using Modere products for more than 10 years. Their philosophy of avoiding the use of almost 3000 either known or even potentially hazardous chemicals in their formulations was the basis for our switch away from personal care products that contain not only SLS/SLES but a number of other dangerous ingredients.

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