What’s the deal with sulfates?
I started looking into parabens and wrote a post here detailing their use here. When I was researching parabens, I also came across sulfates a lot as well. Many products would state that they are paraben free and sulfate free. Why should I be concerned about sulfates?
What are sulfates?
Sulfates/sulphates are polyatomic anions or salts from sulfuric acid; these synthetic compounds are based on sulfur, lauric acid from coconuts, and are also partially derived from petrolatum (source). We encounter them in everyday life and they are water soluble. Two derivatives of sulfates are used in commercial products – sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are emulsifiers commonly used as detergents or water surfactants; in other words, sulfates are used to make bubbles or the lather you are used to in laundry detergent, soap, body washes, and facial cleansers.
The primary types of sulfates we encounter are:
- sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) aka
- sodium dodecyl sulfate
- sulfuric acid
- monododecyl ester
- sodium salt
- sodium salt sulfuric acid
- sodium dodecyl sulfate
- aquarex me or aquarex methyl
- sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
- ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS) – similar to SLS
But why should I be worried about bubbles?
The concern with sulfates
SLS and SLES are prevalent in many of the personal care products we use today. Both come with minor pitfalls:
SLS may potentially irritate sensitive skin, even more so then SLES.
SLES produces a bi-product, 1,4-dioxane, which is a carcinogen (source). Yves Lanctôt, a chemist quoted in Best Health Magazine has stated that this is a very minuscule amount though – for every 10 million grams of SLES manufactured, 10 grams of 1,4-dioxane are produced which is thousands of times below the levels considered safe for our exposure. Mercola has also reiterated that the many studies detailing the ill effects of SLS demonstrate direct contact with a high level of sulfates or direct ingestion of SLS (basically, the danger is like eating 1,000 bottles of shampoo!); thus the amount of sulfate exposure in studies is unrealistic and not close to the levels we would actually encounter. Generally, the long term effects of SLS and SLES exposure on our health hasn’t been studied though. The greater concern is the potential long term impact of cumulative exposure to sulfates.
Cosmetic downfalls of sulfates
Sulfates are effective at cutting through oil and grime if they are in your shampoo; but this also means that they may be a little too good at stripping your hair of moisture. This may lead to drier, brittle hair that is prone to breakage according to Women’s Health. Another beauty pitfall of sulfates is your hair color if your hair is dyed. Sulfates can take away hair color as well as moisture. So if you just got a brand new shiny hair color, stay away from hair products with sulfates! If you have sensitive skin, you should also be wary of the drying effects of sulfates.
If you’re concerned about sulfates irritating your skin or health, remember to read the labels of your personal care products. If you’re in the US, look for the USDA organic seal (it’s not enough for an item to be labeled organic since any company can label their wares as “natural” or “organic”). According to Mercola, we also absorb up to 5 pounds of chemicals from various products and it is difficult to determine the potential effects of different combinations including SLS. So read those beauty product labels and know the potential effects of sulfates!
- Sulfates are in almost personal care product from toothpaste to shampoo
- If you have color treated or dry hair, don’t use hair products with sulfates
- SLS and SLES in personal hair products isn’t at a level that is dangerous for our health
- A carcinogenic by-product is produced along with SLES
- Long-terms effects of SLS and SLES on health is unknown