The Truth About Sulfates
By now, most of us have heard that sulfates aren’t all that good for us. Yet, when you look at the shampoo in your shower or the hand wash on your counter the chance is pretty high that they both contain at least one sulfate. So, why are sulfates allowed in our products if they are harmful? Is it really true that they cause us harm or is this just false alarm?
Pure Snickety is here to answer these questions for you from reputable resources. By the end of this blog post, you will have a better idea of what the deal really is with sulfates. Just remember, show off how smart you are to all your friends, but don’t show off too much!
There are a few resources that I use when researching cosmetic and body care products. I will cite two great references here. First, let’s look at what Natalia and M. Varinia Michalun say about a commonly used sulfate in their book, “Milady’s Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary”…
“Sodium lauryl sulfate serves as a base surfactant, foaming agent with good foaming properties, dispersant, and wetting agent. Formulators have found it ideal for cleansers and soaps intended to be packaged with pump dispensers. However, it is considered among the most irritating surfactants associated with causing skin dryness and redness. Often, it is either replaced by less irritating but related surfactants such as sodium laureth sulfate, or anti-irritant ingredients are incorporated in order to reduce sensitivity potential” (Michalum & Michalum, 2010, p. 278).
A wonderful online resource for ingredients is EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. Conducting a simple search on their site for “sulfate” will return pages and pages of different sulfate compounds and products containing them. Let’s focus on the two mentioned above.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate receives a score of “1-2 with depending on usage” with a research rating of “good.” 896 products listed on their site list sodium lauryl sulfate as an ingredient. It is listed as a human irritant (strong evidence), especially in products for use around the eyes, on skin, or in the air. It is also suspected of being an environmental toxin (Environmental Working Group, 2012).
Sodium Laureth Sulfate receives a score of “4” with a research rating of “limited.” 1,550 products listed on their site list sodium laureth sulfate as an ingredient. It is classified as expected to be toxic and also as a human irritant (strong evidence) with the same conditions as sodium lauryl sulfate (Environmental Working Group, 2012).
So, what’s the deal?
Research into ingredients, both natural and man-made, is ongoing. We can expect to see changing, and even conflicting, data on a regular basis as research continues. Someone spilled the beans on the irritating effects of sodium lauryl sulfate. This has led to a rush by cosmetic companies to replace it with something considered “safer.” But, clearly, that often means “appears” safer to the customer, not necessarily scientifically proven to be safer.
The amount and frequency of use is also a huge factor in whether or not you may want to avoid a product containing sulfates. Cinnamon essential oil is known to be a strong irritant to the skin. Many do not use cinnamon at all in their essential oil blend intended to be used on the skin as opposed to being diffused into the air. However, cinnamon is a naturally occurring ingredient with many benefits. If you see it as an ingredient in an essential oil blend, find out how much cinnamon is used it the blend compared to the other oils. If it is in a very low concentration followed by heavy dilution in a carrier oil prior to use, it may not cause any skin irritation. However, if you have sensitive skin, it may not matter at all if it is heavily diluted, your skin may always react to it.
So, what to do? Be smart! Keep an eye on the current research and know how much of an ingredient is in your product.
Has this post been useful? Let me know!
1. Michalum, N., & Michalum, M.V. (2010). Milady’s skin care and cosmetic ingredients dictionary (3rd ed.). Clifton Park, NY: Cenage Learning.
2. Environmental Working Group. (2012). ECW’s Skin Deep. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/706110/SODIUM_LAURYL_SULFATE/
3. Environmental Working Group. (2012). ECW’s Skin Deep. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/706089/SODIUM_LAURETH_SULFATE/