SLS

If you’re starting to take a keen interest in the ingredients in your most regular purchases, you might have noticed some cosmetics boldly proclaiming to be ‘SLS free’. But what is SLS? Should we be concerned about it?

SLS stands for Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, and may also refer to Sodium Laureth Sulfate (aka SLES) – ‘SLS’ can be used to refer to either; although they aren’t identical chemicals, they’re pretty similar, and their uses and functions are largely the same. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is one of several ingredients found really commonly in all kinds of cosmetics and cleaning products. It can also be used as a powerful pesticide, though producers were denied an application to recognise SLS as an organic pesticide, because of its poor credentials when it comes to pollution and environmental damage.

It has a couple of functions:

  • It makes loads of foam
  • It disperses grease
  • It is a ‘penetration enhancer’, meaning it helps other chemicals find their way onto your skin (and beyond)
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Image via Flickr user frankieleon

Its ability to make foam and disperse grease means you *feel* clean, even if it makes no real difference when compared to a less-foamy cleanser. This is especially appealing to budget or low-quality brands which aren’t especially functional. If SLS is present in your creams, it’s probably to make them spread out better. None of this sounds so bad, except for the fact that SLS is a known skin irritant. If you struggle with psoriasis or eczema, or very bad dry skin, for example, SLS will probably make that worse. If your shampoo is making your scalp itch or blister, you might want to check whether SLS is an ingredient. If you’re as cynical as me, you’ll suspect that cosmetic companies know this, and know that they can upsell an intensive moisturiser to soothe all that irritation from your nice foamy face wash! A few well-known beauty journalists have started to advise against foaming face washes and SLS, but many of us still reach for well-known brands when we want to feel ‘clean’, without thinking too much about those unpronounceable ingredients listed on the back. There have been rumours that SLS increases cancer-risk, but these are unsubstantiated by any scientific study, and SLS is classified as a non-carcinogen.

If you’re a regular on the blog, you won’t be surprised to hear that the main reason SLS is so widely used is that it is incredibly cheap to produce. SLS can be derived from palm oil (or coconut oil), so if you’re working to buy palm-oil free products, this is worth bearing in mind.

So, SLS is bad news for our skin, but what about the environment?

SLS is toxic to aquatic species including fish, molluscs, and crustaceans and, as a pesticide, finds itself in waterways and groundwater more often than it should – a 2008 review by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) “strongly advised not to let the chemical enter into the environment”. It isn’t always picked up by water filtration processes, meaning it works its way into our drinking water too.

How easy is it to go SLS-free?

I have pretty sensitive skin, and my scalp is prone to irritation (and my hair is prone to frizz), so I phased SLS out of my routine about 2 years ago. Initially, the hardest thing to get used to was the lack of suds. I have pretty thick (and very long, until recently) hair, so I had to find a new way of distributing shampoo all over without the foam to help me. I also had a few false starts with products which were great for Lewis, but just didn’t quite work for my longer, finer hair. I’m now pretty settled, so these are my absolute favourites, and regular fixtures on my bathroom shelves.

Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 – great as a body wash although wasn’t great on my hair, and can also be used as a laundry detergent and even washing-up liquid!

Washed Out Soap – such a lovely brand, I love a delivery from Washed Out! Their Barista soap is the ideal thing for waking up in the morning, and has done wonders for my combination skin, as it gently exfoliates and isn’t too harsh on the dry bits.

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One Village Soap – one of our early discoveries, and great for handwashing (though not quite right for hair washing, I found). Gets a pretty good foam up too.

Green People Shampoo & Conditioner – the hair products dreams are made of! I have curly hair that’s prone to frizz, and the Green People range means I now have the shiny manageable hair I always envied on TV adverts. Not cheap, but you only need a tiny amount and it works really well. I tend to go 2 or even 3 days between hair washes, so I haven’t noticed a big difference in cost over time.

Green People have a really big range, and are also my favourite for deodorant. I’ve yet to sample their wares, but Pure Nuff Stuff have a really big range of products which are all SLS free, and free of other nasties too. Both worth a look, especially for those in the UK who are keen to find options which don’t come with hefty shipping from the US!

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Environment: Cotton

The globalised world makes things, on the one hand, more accessible and at the same time  isolates us from one another. The impact of our consumer choices has far reaching consequences. It affects the lives of people all over the world and contributes to climate change. This is true when one buys everyday clothing goods. I wanted to illustrate this with the humble cotton t-shirt.

Cotton is the most widely used fibre in the world. This can be attributed to European colonisation of America. Crop production in the Southern states was the foundation of the American economy. Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin (gin is short for engine) in 1794. This greatly reduced the time it took to separate the cotton boll from the seed. In turn this created an explosion in demand for Black slaves. The US produced 750,000 bales of cotton in 1830, due to the cotton gin this rose to 2.85 million bales in 1850. The English economy equally profited. Textiles were a main export, thanks to technological advancements in the 1760s. The US and English supply chains were unified when the English opted to buy cotton from the South instead of India. The economies of European nations were built by the labour of slaves. Since this time cotton has been an internationally profitable industry which explains its wide use.

cotton aral sea 2
Image courtesy of David Stanley via Flickr

Sadly slave labour is still a feature of the cotton trade today. In Uzbekistan, a major global exporter, the government forces millions of its citizens, including children, to pick the crop or face state oppression. The citizens make little money, if any, for carrying out this labour-intensive work. In contrast  the government and their inner-circle  make US$1 billion in annual profit. The Cotton Campaign seeks to raise global awareness to force governments and institutions to put pressure on the Uzbek government. We too can play a part by raising awareness, and using our purchasing power to buy goods from progressive companies.

Many companies state they do not know where their cotton comes from due to the complexities of the trade. This may be a case of wilful blindness. The US government subsidises its farmers in order to ‘dump’ their cotton crop on the global market, below cost-price. Farmers in developing nations are undercut and locked into the cycle of poverty. It falls upon NGOs and informed consumers campaigning to call out the practices of large companies. Driven by the scale of global cotton production, questions have been asked of the environmental impact it has. Cotton accounts for 2.5% of the worlds farm land and uses 16% of global pesticides – more than any other crop.

The process of producing a cotton t-shirt is resource intensive, requiring  2700 litres of water to make just one t-shirt. With 73% of global cotton farming requiring irrigation, the impact upon communities and the surrounding area can be disastrous. The Aral Sea is a well known example. Overuse of the rivers leading into the lake led to it dramatically reducing in size. The use of pesticides on the farmland lead to run off, which sees pesticides enter the surrounding rivers. This leads to  the loss of species and the contamination of fresh waterways.

cotton aral sea
Aral Sea 1989 – 2008 Image courtesy of UN Development Programme via Flickr

Conventionally grown cotton is an intensive business. In order to maximise yield, and thus profit, insecticides are used. It is said that seven out of the 15 most carcinogenic chemicals in the world are used in cotton farming. Defoliants are used to force leaves to fall from crops to speed up the harvesting process. The Americans used Agent Orange, a defoliant, in  the invasion of Vietnam to remove forest cover. These substances enter the soil, waterways and vegetation generally. The impact, as is too often the case, falls disproportionately on poorer people in developing countries. The use of chemicals is not limited to the field. In the finishing process; formaldehyde, sulphuric acid and caustic acid are used. It is worrying that harmful chemicals are used on this massive scale and that this practice isn’t routinely known. There is, at least, a better alternative to this method of farming that seeks to address these concerns.

‘organic methods save 95,000 Olympic size swimming pools of water against conventional farming’

Organic cotton farming is growing in popularity as people learn about conventional methods. In terms of environmental impact the facts are staggering. As the Soil Association state, organic methods save 95,000 Olympic size swimming pools of water against conventional farming. Due to the levels of insecticides and pesticides used, it takes a conventional farm three years to transform to meet organic standards. Organic methods reject multinational GMO seed creation. Farmers, and not business people, are at the heart of the production stage. As a result the farmers, their communities and the environment are not exposed to carcinogenic material. Organic cotton is 98% less pollutant than conventional cotton. In order to ensure the fertility of the soil, farmers plant  a variety of crops. This biodiversity improves the quality of the cotton and diversifies the income farmers are able to generate. Less water is used, which safeguards all of our futures. Organic cotton farming is able to use less water as the soil is better able to retain water, thus irrigation is not required.

To ensure the goods you purchase are organic certified look for the GOTS and Soil Association labels. It may be claimed that organic cotton is more expensive than conventional / cruel cotton. However, this is due to the practices inherent in fast fashion. The low prices, much like chemicals used, are artificially manufactured. It is abhorrent that farmers / communities are forced to endure life on the bread line so that I may have a cheap t-shirt. When one factors in the environmental destruction caused by conventional  cotton we are all paying a high price for those low costing goods. The answer is to change our relentless consumption. Buy less and Be more.

There are a number of companies who adhere to the organic cotton ethos (not all companies are vegan);

The White Shirt Co.

People Tree

Braintree

Beaumont Organic

You can also find a list of companies who support organic cotton on the Cotton On and About Organic Cotton websites. NB Not all of the companies featured are vegan.

Below is a short documentary about how a t-shirt is made and the people who make them.

Palm Oil

Palm oil is one of those ingredients we hear about a lot, and is generally considered to be A Bad Thing. So, what’s the deal with palm oil?

What is palm oil?

In essence (and on lots of food labels) it’s vegetable oil. Specifically, vegetable oil derived primarily from the African oil palm tree. It’s been a common cooking ingredient in parts of the world with indigenous crops for a very long time, but has grown in industrial usage because it offers higher yields than other vegetable oil crops, thus reducing the cost to producers for the same volume. Recent estimates state that palm oil accounts for 60% of global vegetable oil trade.

What’s the problem?

The main problem is that widespread use of palm oil in commercial products (not just food, but cosmetics too) has meant planting and harvesting on an industrial scale. Growing trees takes time and space, so this industry has had to reach far and wide around the world to keep yields high and consistent. To make things worse, oil palms decline in yield after about 20 years, and are then razed and replanted. Because the crop only thrives in tropical areas, the industry has focused on Africa, South America, and South East Asia, with Malaysia and Indonesia seeing the most profound impact – 85% of global production is based in Malaysia and Indonesia. Reports indicate that palm oil production was the leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, and 2011 estimates indicated that palm oil production would double by 2020.

Palm oil is usually planted in ‘monocrops’ (i.e large areas all the same) and, to save money on fertilizer and land preparation of uncultivated land, growers are instead clearing forest to create palm oil plantations. Palm oil cultivation often involves very heavy fertilizer and pesticide use. Sometimes plantations are established on former rubber plantations, but the majority are now established on previously ‘virgin’ forest. This is bad news on several fronts:

Climate Change – most primary school children can probably tell you that deforestation is bad for the environment, because it removes established CO2 exchanging trees and replaces them with saplings which are cut down before they reach full maturity. On top of this, the peat forests of Malaysia and Indonesia act as ‘carbon sinks’, storing carbon more efficiently than any other ecosystem on earth. When you add the trappings of industrial forestry to that (including air pollution from road building, transportation and other industrialisation), and the high instance of fires during land preparation, the net effect on climate change is significant.

Biodiversity – ecosystems are fragile things, and in the relatively untouched rainforest, this holds true. Existing forest provides a stable habitat for thousands of species, many of which aren’t found anywhere else on earth. They exist in delicate balance, with plant-based food sources, predators and prey co-existing. When palm oil plantations arrive, those species that survive the razing of the existing forest and the industrial activity that follows find themselves homeless, and often with a much scarcer food supply. Their communities are unsettled, interrupting mating seasons and scattering populations.

Social disruption – alongside the disruption to non-human animals, large-scale plantations can also disrupt local communities, particularly where their livelihoods, infrastructure or social framework are undermined. Land acquisition for palm oil plantations is often disruptive to existing schemes of land use and ownership, and can be exploitative of local communities, as seen in Nigeria, Liberia, and elsewhere.

Working conditions – in many regions, palm oil production is associated with exploitative and unsafe working conditions, including forced labour and child labour. Workers may be trafficked, unpaid, and subject to dangerous conditions and discrimination.

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Photo via Glenn Hurowitz on Flickr

How’s the future looking?

Not so bright. In Malaysia, industry has successfully lobbied for rubber plantations to be classified in the same way as existing indigenous forest. If they achieve the same thing for palm plantations, any conversion of indigenous forest to palm plantation won’t show up in environmental statistics, meaning fewer hoops to jump through and less oversight.

The damage to biodiversity and habitats mean that palm plantations directly contribute to the endangerment of numerous fauna and flora species, including the Asian elephant, the orangutan, the Sumatran rhinoceros, and the tiger. As the communities of those remaining in each species become increasingly fragmented, the chances of recovery and escape from endangerment decrease, bringing us ever closer to losing these species forever.

Similarly, as we lose peatlands and rainforest, we’re losing rare plant species and extremely old and established ecosystems that will be impossible to replace. Their value for animals, people, and the environment cannot be overstated, partly because much of it is unknown. We will only realise the full impact of this destruction when it is already too late to reverse or slow it.

In terms of climate change, the rainforests are regularly referred to as the ‘lungs of the earth’ – they do a huge amount of CO2/oxygen exchange, and the peatlands provide carbon ‘sinks’ which absorb and store carbon.

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Photo via Takver on Flickr

Be wary of lobbying groups. Some of the most well-known pressure groups have a conflicting position on this issue, which muddies the waters and weakens the strength of their lobbying.

What’s happening already?

Based in Malaysia, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are working to certify production practices and the companies and products that use palm oil. The product list is short at the moment, but does include Whole Earth peanut butter and some more well-known (in the UK) brands like soap from Co-Op and Waitrose, and Jordans cereals.

The thing is,there’s an awful lot of scepticism about the effectiveness and motivation of this group. There is some concern that they serve as a way of legitimizing the continued mass-scale production of palm oil (is this our old friend greenwashing again?). Cadbury’s, Nestle, and Tesco are all signed up to the scheme, but widespread deforestation and associated environmental and workforce issues continue – one of the world’s largest producers, Wilmar International, committed to a swathe of improvements by 2015, yet were believed to be responsible for a recent land grab in Nigeria, destroying an area of High Conservation Value and having significant negative impact on local communities. In fact, by legitimising ‘good’ palm oil in this way, the RSPO may actually increase demand. As we’ve noted above, with the specific climate required for palm oil, the majority of viable space for growing his crop remains rainforest, which is problematic however you slice it.

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Photo via Rainforest Action Network on Flickr

Whilst Friends of the Earth have come out strongly against the work of the RSPO and in favour of complete palm-oil avoidance, the WWF are actually a founding member of the RSPO. It’s a tangential issue, but in cooperating with industry-driven schemes like this, the WWF is legitimizing the use of these loopholes, and giving concerned consumers a second layer of security that there can be such a thing as ‘sustainable’ palm oil.

How can we fix it?

This is where it gets pretty tough, for a couple of reasons:

  • Information: palm oil can be classified as ‘vegetable oil’ on labels, so it can be really difficult to be certain whether a particular product is palm-oil free. There are more than 200 alternative names for palm oil including Palmitate, Stearic Acid, Clyceryl Stearate-Cocopalm, Sodium Stearate, Sodium Laurel Sulphate and Retinyl Palmitate. Cosmetics particularly favour the botanical name, elaeis guineensis. A few brands are beginning to label products as ‘palm oil free’, but this brings us to the second problem…
  • Cost: brands are savvy, and they’ve realised that many people are willing (and some are able) to spend extra cash for the assurance that their products are palm-oil free. Take peanut butter, for example. Whole Earth produce several types of peanut butter, all boasting organic certification, and salt and sugar free. So far, so good. But 227g of their ‘100% nuts’ palm oil free will set you back £2.89, compared with £2.49 for their standard offering. Pip & Nut are another popular brand, and their palm-oil free peanut butter is £2.30 for 250g. When you compare that with £1.30 for 340g of supermarket own brand, you can see the premium.
  • Time: a great way of reducing your palm oil consumption is to make more food from scratch, and I know there are those who buy peanuts in bulk and roast and blitz them to make their own peanut butter, and that’s great – I bet it tastes amazing. For some of us, that’s a once-in-a-while kitchen adventure, rather than something we could manage to do regularly, but if more home cooking is something you are able to move towards, this is another great reason to do so

I should say that during the research and writing of this article, I’ve realised that there are a lot of items in my own home that contain ‘hidden’ palm oil, and I’ll be working to phase those out as soon as I can. As and when we find good alternatives, we’ll post them up here so you can incorporate them into your own shopping if you like.

By starting to be more aware and make palm-oil free choices wherever possible, we can reduce the market demand for palm-oil, whilst also indicating that there is a strong market for palm-oil free options.

Lobbying for explicit labelling of palm oil (cutting down on those 200+ names, and the illusion of ‘vegetable oil’) would be a huge step in empowering consumer choices.

Ethical Consumer produce a list of palm-oil free products, which is a great place to start.