If you have the habit of checking the label on the back of the bottle before buying a new shampoo, one ingredient you may see quite often listed on shampoo labels is Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate or Sodium Laureth Sulfate, AKA SLES for short. But what is SLES, and is it safe to use in shampoo? In this post, we’ll take a closer look at this ingredient, as well as the potential risks and benefits of using it in shampoo, so you can make more informed decisions.
Although there is some debate about the safety of using Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES) in shampoos and other personal care products, it has been reviewed and concluded by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to be safe to use in shampoos with low risks. SLES is an improved variation of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) with a gentler reaction on the skin.
If you need more information other than a brief conclusion, read on to get a clear and thorough idea about SLES use in shampoo.
What is SLES?
Sodium lauryl ether sulfate, or SLES, is a surfactant that is dominantly used in personal care products, such as shampoo, toothpaste, and soap.
A surfactant is a type of compound that has both hydrophobic (water-fearing) and hydrophilic (water-loving) properties. This allows it to effectively dissolve and remove dirt, oil, and other impurities from surfaces. When a surfactant is mixed with water, it forms a micellar solution. The hydrophobic end of the surfactant molecule attracts dirt and oil, while the hydrophilic end attracts water. This allows the surfactant to surround and lift the dirt and oil away from the surface, effectively “cleaning” it.
SLES is a mild coconut-derived anionic surfactant with a great balance of cost and performance, widely used as an emulsifier, cleanser, and foaming agent in mild skin-touch products. It is known for its ability to create a stable foam or lather, even in cold and hard water conditions, which makes it an effective cleaning agent in a variety of personal care products.
Why SLES is used in shampoos?
SLES is commonly used in shampoo as a primary surfactant and foaming agent to help clean the scalp and hair. As implied by its name, Sodium Laureth Sulfate is a sulfate-based surfactant. Shampoos that contain SLES are then classified as sulfate-based shampoos.
Our scalp secretes grease naturally every day, and the grease helps to bond dirt from the air and surroundings to our hair and scalp. The grease and dirt build up on our hair and scalp, which makes them become dirty and greasy. It’s hard to wash this grease and dirt away if only with water, as they are almost all insoluble in water.
Like any other surfactant, SLES has a chemical structure with a hydrophobic (water-fearing) head and a hydrophilic (water-loving) head. The hydrophobic head is also known as the lipophilic head, which means it can bond with grease and dirt effectively as they typically have fatty or lipoid molecules. Well, the hydrophilic head can bond with the water molecule. So this way, SLES can make the initially insoluble grease and dirt insoluble in water and then can be washed away easily.
SLES also has outstanding foaming ability. It can produce a stable lather, which helps to spread the shampoo over a larger surface area and allows it to penetrate dirt and grime. A rich foam also helps to make the wet hair easy to comb, and prevent it from tangling.
Are there any side effects of using SLES in Shampoos?
Despite its widespread use in shampoo, there has been some debate about the potential negative effects of SLES on the skin and hair. Here are the top two concerns:
- Irritation – One potential risk of using SLES is its potential to irritate the skin and eyes. Some people may find that SLES can cause redness, dryness, and itching, particularly if they have sensitive skin or certain allergies. The reason is that SLES can strip the scalp of its natural oils, causing the scalp to lose a natural barrier. Without this natural barrier, moisture underneath the stratum corneum evaporates and makes the skin dry and vulnerable to the surroundings. However, this is not the case for most people who have a healthy scalp.
- Cancer-causing – There has been some debate about the potential for SLES to cause cancer. Some studies have suggested that SLES may be a potential carcinogen, while others have found no evidence of a link between the use of SLES and an increased risk of cancer. The cancerogenic concern of SLES is due to the 1,4-Dioxane, which is a byproduct of the manufacture of SLES. However, a SLES produced by a regulated method and process typically contains 1,4-Dioxane below 20 parts per million(ppm). When formulated in shampoos, the content of 1,4-Dioxane is commonly below 3 ppm. When applied to wash hair, as the shampoo is diluted by water, the content of 1,4-Dioxane in the solution can further go down to below 1 ppm. Such a low content is believed to be a very low possibility of cancer-causing.
As a manufacturer of shampoos and other personal care products, it’s very crucial to purchase SLES with high purity and low containment of 1,4-Dioxane from a certified supplier.
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Alternatives to SLES in Shampoos
If the information given above still does not allay your concerns about SLES safeness in shampoos, or your scalp is sensitive to SLES and its kind that has a strong cleaning and degreasing ability. There are a number of alternative ingredients that you may want to consider. These include:
- Coconut-derived surfactants: Surfactants derived from coconut oil, such as Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, and Cocamidopropylamine Oxide, are effective at creating a stable lather and can be used as alternatives to SLES in shampoo and other personal care products. They are less drying to the hair and scalp than SLES and are less likely to irritate the skin and eyes.
- Essential oils: Essential oils, such as tea tree oil and lavender oil, can be used in shampoo and other personal care products to help clean the scalp and hair. They have natural antimicrobial properties and can help to soothe the skin and promote healthy hair growth.
- Plant-based surfactants: Some plant-based surfactants can be used as alternatives to SLES. A typical example is C8-14 Alkyl Polyglycoside. These surfactants are derived from natural vegetal sources like corn, sugarcane, and coconut or palm. They are generally considered to be gentler on the skin and hair than synthetic surfactants.
- Amino Acid derived surfactants; Amino acid derived surfactants are surfactants that are derived from amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. They are generally considered to be gentle and skin-friendly, making them great choices for products that are formulated for sensitive skin, as they are less likely to cause irritation than other types of surfactants. Some examples of amino acid-derived surfactants include:
- Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate – Derived from fatty acids and amino acid Sarcosine
- Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate – Derived from fatty acids and amino acid Glycinate
- Potassium Cocoyl Glycinate – Derived from fatty acids and amino acid Glycinate, Potassium salt variation of Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate.
- Sodium Lauroyl Glutamate – Derived from fatty acids and amino acid Glutamate.
When choosing an alternative to SLES, it is important to consider the effectiveness of the ingredient and its potential benefits. Natural ingredients may be gentler on the skin and hair, but they may not be as effective at cleaning the scalp and hair as synthetic surfactants. It is also a good idea to test a small patch of skin before using a new product to ensure that it does not cause any irritation.
The debate around the use of Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES) in personal care products, typically shampoo, is ongoing. While SLES is an effective surfactant and can help to clean the scalp and hair, there have been concerns about its potential negative effects on the skin and hair. Some people may find that SLES can cause irritation, dryness, and itching, and it has been shown to strip the hair of its natural oils. There has also been some concern about the potential cancer-causing effects of SLES, although the evidence is limited and more research is needed to fully understand any potential risks.
It is important to consider the potential risks and benefits of all ingredients when choosing personal care products, and to make informed decisions about what is right for you and your needs. If you are concerned about the potential negative effects of SLES, you may want to consider using a product that does not contain this ingredient.