Is SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) Bad For You?

Dr. Bronner's - a great SLS-free soap!
Dr. Bronner's - a great SLS-free soap! | Source

SLS stands for Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. SLS is a common ingredient in soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, liquid soap – basically, anything which foams, and which is designed to be rinsed off.

SLS’s cousin chemicals are SLES (Sodium Laureth Sulfate), ALS (Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate) and ALES (Ammonium Laureth Sulfate). All of these chemicals perform the same task – they are surfactants, which means that they make things slippery. Surfactants also create foam, like the suds when you lather up in the shower.

Surfactants are necessary when it comes to soaps and detergents, because they are what separate the dirt from the thing you are washing, whether it is your hands, the dishes, your clothes, or anything else.

Is SLS A Harmful Irritant?

Without question, yes. SLS has been tested by the FDA and classified as an irritant. The Materials Safety Data Sheet for SLS says that it is:

· Harmful if swallowed

· May be dangerous if absorbed through the skin

· Causes severe eye irritation

· May cause a respiratory reaction if inhaled

Sounds scary, right? The truth is that these effects are usually mild in the concentrations of SLS that you will encounter in most consumer products like shampoo.

The MSDS refers to high concentrations of SLS, and to long-term exposure. This is why it is considered acceptable for SLS to be used in products – like shampoo – which are designed to rinse off. According to the FDA, if you rinse off SLS, its effects are virtually nill.

However, it is widely acknowledged that some people are “unusually sensitive” to SLS. In the same way that most people can inhale pollen without any problems, but some people spend the entire spring season in misery, most people can tolerate exposure to SLS. But some people with sensitive skin will experience itching, rashes, redness, and acne outbreaks after even a small, “normal” exposure.

This would seem to indicate that the FDA's threshold for material safety and "normal" usage may be out of whack. Or is it? If some people are allergic to SLS, other people are allergic to pollen, dogs, and peanut butter. That doesn't necessarily mean that we need to ban the use and sale of flowers, dogs, and peanut butter.

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SLS Sensitivity Symptoms

If you have dandruff, eczema, itchy red skin, or acne, consider going on an “SLS-Free Diet” for a week or two to see if this may be the cause. SLS sensitivity is more common than some people think. And unfortunately, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate itself is almost ubiquitous. As a known irritant, SLS is probably the root cause of many problems which go undiagnosed.

Acne, redness, and/or itchy skin around the mouth, for example, is a classic symptom of SLS sensitivity. Switch to an SLS-free toothpaste, or brush your teeth with baking soda for a week to see if it clears up.

If your hands and knuckles are red, raw, or itchy, switch to an SLS-free soap. Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap is SLS-free, and works well as a liquid hand soap (simply dilute it 50/50 with water before use). You can also use Dr. Bronner’s as a dishwashing liquid soap, or wear rubber dishwashing gloves.

Dr. Bronner’s works well as a shampoo, too. L’Oreal recently released a line of sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners which are excellent for this purpose, albeit expensive.

Dandruff is a very common symptom of SLS sensitivity for people who use shampoo and/or conditioner containing SLS. Ironic, because one of the main ingredients of most dandruff control shampoos is - you guessed it - SLS.

SLS can cause stomach problems for some people who use toothpaste containing SLS.

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Does SLS Cause Cancer?

There is no indication that SLS is carcinogenic. If you have received an email about the supposedly cancer-causing properties of SLS, please understand that this email has been floating around for decades. It contains no verifiable assertions, and there is no data to support it. This is yet another example of random hysteria, and should be disregarded.

SLS can certainly cause problems, but cancer is not, to the best of our knowledge at this time, one of them.

SLS Sensitivity Poll

Are you sensitive to SLS?

  • Yes, I get terrible skin problems from even the slightest exposure
  • To some extent. I can use some SLS products, as long as I don't use them too often.
  • Not at all.
See results without voting

Does SLS Cause Hair Loss?

It is a truism among many people that sulfates cause hair to fall out early, or to become brittle and break sooner than it should. This is the belief which encouraged L’Oreal to release a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner system.

This belief is strictly anecdotal at this point. The relationship, if any, between sulfates and hair breakage is only significant after years of exposure – as happens when you grow your hair extremely long. Remember that your hair grows about half an inch a month, so if your hair is three inches long, it is only six months old.

That being said, SLS sensitivity can cause dandruff and dry scalp which will make your hair condition poor. If you want your hair to look its best, and you are sensitive to SLS, then you will definitely want to switch to SLS-free shampoo and conditioner.

The Science of Soap Bubbles

SLS Benefits

There are no health benefits to Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, and many negatives. Most of these negatives are in the category of irritation, which is fairly benign – unless you are the one who is suffering from chronic dandruff, of course!

The benefit to SLS is that it causes your cosmetic cleaning products to foam well. It is cheap, which is why so many companies include it in their products.

Foaming is strictly a psychological matter, however. The suds themselves are not what gets you clean. They simply look “clean” to our aesthetics. Your shampoo and other soaps would work just fine even without the suds.

Certainly if you switch to SLS-free products, you will not be missing out on some kind of valuable ingredient or health effect. There is no down side to choosing SLS-free products, except the added expense.

In fact, there is very little reason to use SLS at all, for any product. There are a lot of other surfactants available for use, and many of them are less toxic and less likely to cause irritation compared to SLS.

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Comments 5 comments

tmbridgeland profile image

tmbridgeland 5 years ago from Small Town, Illinois

SLS is bad for skin and makes eczema worse. Good Hub,


Blogging Erika profile image

Blogging Erika 5 years ago Author

Thanks! And frankly I agree - I became aware of the issue when someone suggested that my own various skin problems might be SLS-related. I switched to all SLS-free products, and it cleared up a bunch of problems I had been having!


fucsia profile image

fucsia 5 years ago

The SLS is used very often: in soaps, shampoo, shower gel, especially economic ones. Thank you for reminding everyone that it can be very irritating and that is a good habit to check the ingredients of the products we buy


William 4 years ago

I suspected taking HOT SHOWERS makes irritation worse with sulfate products. I avoided using scrubbing products as well as patting dry vs scrubbing dry with the towel. I like my hot showers so will be switching to baby shampoo or other sulfate free products.


Drew 4 years ago

Wow, thanks for this site. I just inhaled shampoo suds and i instantly started coughing and my chest started burning. After 10-15 mins i felt better. But i freaked out

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