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All this talk about sulfates, surfactants and suds has me in a lather! What to do since those culprits Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) pop up in the ingredients list on so many bottles of our favourite hair and body care products? And, really, how bad can they be?

Tommy Dionisio, Partner, Chief Sustainability Officer & Story Teller @ NEUMA, an authority on the subject, shares an in-depth look at SLS and SLES with us. He emphasizes that NEUMA, an organic and environmentally sustainable hair care product line, does not use either of these harsh surfactants, but only chemicals shown to be safe though numerous research studies, including but not limited to: Tufts University, Cornell, Skin Deep, Web MD.

“Here is a very surface overview of both SLS and SLES. Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) is way more harmful at first blush. But upon closer look, Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) has some very scary, unhealthy factors of its own.

SLS started its career as an industrial degreasing agent and garage floor cleaner, and when applied to human skin, it strips off the oil layer.  SLS is a very harsh detergent found in almost all shampoos and more than a few toothpastes. Pick up a cross section of these products next time you visit the supermarket and you’ll find SLS or SLES on many ingredient labels.

Studies on SLS  have shown that:  (Judi Vance, Beauty To Die For, Promotion Publishing, 1998)

  • Shampoos with SLS & SLES could retard healing and keep children’s eyes from developing properly. Children under six years old are especially vulnerable to improper eye development (summary of Report of Research to Prevent Blindness, Inc. conference).
  • SLS & SLES can cause cataracts in adults and delay the healing of wounds on the surface of the cornea.
  • SLS & SLES have low molecular weights and are easily absorbed by the body. They build up in the heart, liver and brain and can cause major problems in these areas.
  • SLS causes skin to flake and separate, causing roughness of the skin.
  • SLS & SLES cause dysfunction of the biological systems of the skin.
  • SLS is such a caustic cleanser that it actually corrodes the hair follicle and impairs the ability to grow hair.
  • SLS is routinely used in clinical studies deliberately to irritate the skin so that the effects of other substances can be tested (study cited by the Wall St Journal, 1st November 1998).

As Billy used to say “But wait there’s more…”

The Journal of The American College of Toxicology in 1983 showed that concentrations of SLS as low as 0.5% cause irritation, and concentrations of 10-30% cause skin corrosion and severe irritation (typical shampoo is 25 – 35%). Although SLES is somewhat less irritating than SLS, it is easily absorbed by the skin into an organism (A.K.A. Human) and cannot be metabolized by the liver, making its negative effects much longer-lasting.

Shampoos are among the most frequently reported products to the FDA (for adverse reactions). Reports include eye irritation, scalp irritation, tangled hair, swelling of the hands, face and arms and split and fuzzy hair. The main cause of these problems is sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate (SLS and SLES).

So why are dangerous chemicals like SLS and SLES used in shampoos?

The answer is simple – it is cheap. And the SLS and SLES found in popular soaps is exactly the same used by a car wash or even a garage to degrease car engines.

SLS and SLES dissolve oils on your skin and hair the exact same way they dissolve grease off your car’s engine. That is what causes the drying effect. It denatures skin proteins that allows it and other environmental contaminants to attack the skin’s lower more sensitive layers, irritating and eroding it, leaving it rough and pitted.

SLS and SLES are also absorbed into the body directly through your skin. Many people do not view their skin as their body’s largest organ, one that not only perspires (sweat), but also drinks in (absorb) nutrients. Along with inhalation, ingestion and injection, dermal absorption is a route of exposure for toxic substances and a route of administration for medications (think transdermal nicotine patches). Your body absorbs almost 3 oz. of water THROUGH YOUR SKIN during a hot shower – absorbing all the chlorine, etc. along the way (I’ll stop there before a tangent takes over).

Your skin’s incredible design allows for a way to keep many environmental poisons and contaminants out, called the sebum, an oily layer excreted by the skin. Problem. SLS and SLES are designed to strip the sebum off your skin, dramatically increasing your exposure not only to the SLS and SLES (like they are not bad enough) but also to a host of other toxic chemicals used in hair care chemistry.

Once absorbed, one of the main effects of SLS is to mimic the activity of the hormone Oestrogen. This has many health implications http://www.natural-health-information-centre.com/sls-health-implications.html  and may be responsible for a variety of health problems, from PMS and menopausal symptoms to dropping male fertility and increasing female cancers such as breast cancer, where oestrogen levels are known to be involved.

SLS is used throughout the world for clinical testing as a primary skin irritant. Laboratories use it to irritate skin (called an insult test) on test animals and humans so that they may then test healing agents to see how effective they are on the irritated skin.

One last bit about a process known as Ethoxylation:  Ethoxylation is the process that makes degreasing agents such as SLS a little less abrasive and gives it enhanced foaming properties. When SLS is ethoxylated, it forms Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES), a compound used in many shampoos, toothpastes, bath gels, bubble baths, and industrial degreasing agents. The problem is that an extremely harmful compound 1,4-dioxane is created during the ethoxylation process, contaminating the product. 1,4-dioxane was one of the principal components of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam War to strip off the jungle canopy. 1,4-dioxane is a hormonal disrupter believed to be the chief agent implicated in the host of cancers suffered by Vietnam military personnel after the war. It is also an oestrogen mimicker, thought to increase the chances of breast cancer and endometrial cancer, stress related illnesses and lower sperm counts.

Dr Samuel Epstein (author and research scientist) reports: “The best way to protect yourself is to recognise ingredients most likely to be contaminated with1,4-dioxane. These include ingredients with the prefix word, or syllable PEG, Polyethylene, Polyethylene Glycol, Polyoxyethylene, eth (as in sodium laureth sulphate) or oxynol. Both polysorbate 60 and polysorbate 80 may also be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane. (Epstein, Dr Samuel, Safe Shoppers Bible, P.190-191)

All that said – don’t believe me, be a Berean and search the internet for yourself to see whether these things are so.”

Further Reading:  Article by Michael V Brooking and Naheed Zaman