Clean up: Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate toxicity

Sunday, August 04, 2013

After being told by several family members to stop using body wash and shower gels, I looked into how toxic sodium lauryl sulfate and its friends really are, in the context of everyday bath and body products. I've seen all sorts of things across the internet, from "put it down, it's killing you" type of articles to "it's not that bad; if you think that way, everything you use is killing you." While I do believe that to an extent, everything we've come to rely on probably is killing us slowly, I'm also not so "green" that I jump on any green bandwagon without doing some research on whether the levels of these toxins pose a distressing enough threat.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is the sodium salt of lauryl sulfate, and it's generally used to clean, emulsify and help products foam up. It's found in a large number of beauty and health products from shampoos, soaps and body washes, laundry detergents ... to toothpaste, cleansers, foundations. And according to my research, SLS makers have petitioned for it to be approved as a pesticide/herbicide, but was denied because of its polluting properties! [Also according to the same source, "toxic sodium oxides and sulfur oxides are released when SLS is heated." As in a hot shower?]

Ammonium lauryl sulfate is similar in toxicity/irritability as sodium lauryl sulfate, and is used to help cosmetics and cleansers foam.

Sodium laureth sulfate (sodium lauryl ether sulfate, SLES) gives products a higher foaming ability, and is said to be slightly less irritating than sodium lauryl sulfate.

There are a lot of concerns surrounding the use of SLS/SLES, but experts say that the real concern lies in the contamination of these sulfates, rather than the sulfates themselves. The manufacturing process results in SLES and SLS being contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, which is thought to be a carcinogenic byproduct. According to "Dr. Mercola," ethylene oxide, "which is what the 'E' in SLES represents ... reveals a rating of 'high hazard'" and "is used to 'ethoxylate' SLS and other chemicals, to make them less harsh." 1,4 dioxane is "a byproduct of ethylene oxide" and receives an equally high hazard rating.

According to Dr. Mercola, the CDC site describes 1,4 dioxane as "'probably carcinogenic to humans,' toxic to the brain and central nervous system, kidneys and liver. It is also a leading groundwater contaminant." Dr. Mercola goes on to suggest we avoid 1,4 dioxane by not using products that include any of the following ingredients with these suffixes: myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, oxynol. Example Dr. Mercola gives: sodium laureth sulfate.

[Dr. Mercola also pointed out a concept that I hadn't thought much about before: Putting things on your skin can actually be worse than putting it in your mouth, because products placed directly on your skin is absorbed into your bloodstream, whereas the things you eat are usually broken down by a combination of acids and enzymes.]

Generally speaking, the results of research has been altogether not conclusive in terms of how harmful the concentrations of SLS/SLES in beauty products is. SLS/SLES are thought to be non-irritating at levels of 2% or below, and as of now, they have not been found to be bioaccumulative. But they are considered eye and skin irritants, along with being a potential environmental toxin. Since SLSs are often present in toothpaste, it is recommended that those with recurring mouth ulcers should find an SLS-free toothpaste.

For me, I'm going to err on the side of caution when I can afford to. I'll finish using up the products I have that contain SLS/SLES and try to find reasonably priced alternatives. It seems as if more and more drugstore brands are beginning to offer "green" alternatives, so it should make shopping for beauty products easier over the next few years. For example, L'Oreal now offers a line of "Ever" haircare products that are sulfate-free (though not necessarily free of other potentially toxic ingredients). And of course, big box merchants now offer greater "green" options, such as güd by Burt's Bees and Burt's Bees, which are two natural companies which don't also use sodium benzoate.

If you already use sulfate-free shampoos and body washes, which ones do you use and how do they compare to "regular" shampoos and body washes?

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