Posted by Barbara Ransom on April 18, 2011
When washing our hair or brushing our teeth, most of us love lots of lather and bubbles. Their presence alone gives us a feeling of a refreshing clean. Manufacturers of personal care products know this, and therefore want their products to lather and bubble well, so they sell well. How do the manufacturers accomplish this?
One way is by adding a surfactant called sodium lauryl sulfate (also known as sodium laurel sulfate, or SLS) to shampoos, toothpastes, bubble baths and shaving foams. SLS is an effective cleaner that foams well and is inexpensive to manufacture. Sodium laureth sulfate (also known as sodium lauryl ether sulfate SLES) is a chemical relative of SLS that is more soluble and can be used to make clear shampoos. It also cleans and foams well, but is more expensive to produce than SLS. So it is slightly less common, but still added to plenty of products. Reportedly up to 90 percent of commercial care products contain either SLS or SLES.
Both SLS and SLES are harsh detergents that can not only damage and dry out your hair, but also irritate your eyes and skin.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), SLS causes, “irritation on contact with skin, eyes or mucous membranes. Skin contact can cause irritation or allergic reaction.” They also state that it is “mildly toxic by ingestion.” And if ingested, OSHA’s MSDS suggests you “induce vomiting.”
Yes, this is why you should flush your eyes when you get shampoo in them, why you avoid swallowing any of the above products, and why you should limit skin exposure.
So what about toothpaste? Why would anyone want to put these known irritants in their mouth, much less in their child’s mouth, who is more likely to swallow it? Monitoring a toddler or young child brushing does not prevent them from swallowing. But, yes, toothpastes, even some “natural” ones, contain SLS and SLES. In 1998, the FDA required all fluoride toothpastes to carry a warning label about the dangers of swallowing too much toothpaste. Along with fluoride, SLS was also one of the ingredients the FDA identified as posing a health risk, including causing nausea and diarrhea.
SLS and SLES both are active, intentional ingredients in personal care products. At this time, neither is a known carcinogen. However, 1,4-dioxane, which is an accidental byproduct created in the manufacture of SLES (but not SLS), is a Group 2B carcinogen. Both the FDA and the Organic Consumers Association have found 1,4-dioxane in personal care products, including half of the tested organic products, as well as in children’s products.
So what does this mean for consumers and vigilant parents? Read the labels before you buy. Don’t just buy a product because its label says “natural,” “organic” or “tear free.” Read the list of ingredients on the back first. You may have to pass up some of your lather and bubbles, but your hair, skin and eyes will be better off for it. And so will your children.