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)
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.
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!