What Is SLS?

Each time you wash your hair or lather up with soap, do you think about the ingredients you’re putting on your body?

The body absorbs most of what we apply on our hair and skin, but most of us don’t stop to wonder what’s in our toiletries. They’re supposed to leave us fresh and clean after all, aren’t they?

Unbeknownst to many people, many of today’s personal care products are toxic cocktails with synthetic chemicals that may cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, hormonal disruption, and even cancer.

Enter: SLS.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: What Is It?

Sodium lauryl sulfate (aka SLS) is a surfactant - an agent responsible for removing dirt from clothes, household surfaces, hair, and skin. It works by helping water mix with oil to create a lather so that dirt and grime can be easily rinsed away. It breaks the surface tension to make molecules separate so that the rest of the product can interact with your hair, skin, or other object being cleaned.

SLS can also be found in floor cleaners, car wash liquids, and engine degreasers. It’s commonly known as what makes the suds in toothpaste, shampoo, soaps, and body washes.

So considering these many uses, why is SLS the bad guy in your beauty products?

Reasons to Avoid SLS

1. Skin Irritation. As a skin and hair care additive, SLS is effective at lifting oil and dirt from your scalp, hair, and skin – too good, in fact. Your body needs a moderate amount of oil to maintain moisture and inhibit bacterial growth, so using SLS can lead to stripping of too much natural oil. When the protective moisture layer on your body is weakened, irritants can easily penetrate the outer layers and the skin becomes dry, dull, and weak. On top of that, dryness can cause the skin to produce even more oil to compensate for the loss, making your face shiny and acne-prone, your scalp oily, and your hair greasy.

2. Eye Irritation. A study from the University of Georgia Medical College found that SLS can penetrate even further than your outer layers of skin. They found that SLS can make its way into organs like the eyes, liver, and brain. It’s also been linked to poor eye development in children and multiple studies have indicated long-term retention of the chemical in body tissue. Specifically, the chemical can remain in the system for four to five days. Continuous use of SLS-containing products means it will constantly remain in your body.

3. Destroys Cell Membranes. Studies have also discovered that SLS can penetrate the skin and damage the lipid barrier. This degenerative effect impairs the skin’s ability to hold water, and then results to moisture loss, damaged hair follicles, and hair loss.

4. Water Pollution. SLS is dangerous to certain fish and aquatic animals, as it poses the risk of being accumulated inside their bodies. Since it’s a common ingredient in shampoos and cleansers, SLS can easily enter pools of water when it’s washed down the drain.

5. Canker Sores. The toothpaste you’re using to clean your teeth may be the very thing giving you canker sores. SLS has also been linked to canker sores, because its harshness can cause microscopic damage to the tissue lining the inside of your mouth. So, consider an SLS-free toothpaste, especially if you’re prone to these pesky sores.

Due to the skin’s weakened protective barrier, other toxic chemicals may find it easier to enter your body. By chemicals, it’s not just chemicals from detergents, soaps, or shampoos, but could be other toxins from your environment.

Studies haven’t found a direct link between SLS and cancer, but SLS has indirect carcinogenic effects when it’s combined with triethanolamine (TEA). The combination produces nitrosamine, which is a known carcinogen.

Sodium lauryl sulfate is still massively used in many products today. The demand for more shampoos, soaps, and cleansers has increased production of SLS laden items; this chemical really is everywhere! It could be hiding in your own home. Your best tool of defense is paying close attention to the products that you buy by reading the ingredients and buying from brands that you trust.


The Department of Health and Human Services lists products that contain SLS. Watch out for these brands if you’re truly interested in your health. Some of the brands mentioned include:

  • Olay
  • Head & Shoulders
  • Suave
  • Pantene
  • Aveeno
  • Revlon
  • Gillette
  • St. Ives
  • Clearasil
  • Avon
  • Dove
  • Bath & Body Works
  • Lush Cosmetics


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