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Sodium lauryl sulfate: Is it bad & what products is it in?

Last Updated: September 28, 2021

What is sodium lauryl sulfate? How does it work? We asked our in-house expert, Clem Choy Ph.D, these questions (and others) about the very popular surfactant.

For this round of Ask an Expert, we, once again, tapped on Grove’s Senior Director of Science Formulation Clement “Clem” Choy, Ph.D. to get to the bottom of sodium lauryl sulfate (aka SLS), and find out if this commonly-used ingredient is as scary as everyone thinks it is.

(Spoiler alert: It totally isn’t.)

So, what actually is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)?

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Clem Choy: Sodium lauryl sulfate is an anionic surfactant, which means it is negatively charged and great at removing oily substances as it is a foaming agent, hence why they’re found in cleaning and laundry products. It is very versatile, very inexpensive, and can be derived from plants.

Some SLS is made from petroleum, but most green or eco companies use a plant-derived sodium lauryl sulfate. And, in fact, plant-based sodium lauryl sulfate is not priced that differently than a petroleum-based SLS. So they are relatively the same costs, and chemically (and performance-wise) are exactly alike.

The key takeaways here are that SLS is:

  • Versatile
  • Inexpensive
  • Can be 100-percent bio or plant derived

Grove Tip

What is sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)?

Sodium laureth sulfate (or sodium laureth ether sulfate) is also a surfactant used in many cleaning, laundry, and beauty products. It’s parent chemical is SLS. Through the process of ethoxylation, SLS becomes SLES, which is actually a less potent and less harsh chemical than SLS.

So, long story short, SLES works just as well as SLS and is less irritating. Sounds like a winner to us.

So what makes sodium lauryl sulfate such a controversial ingredient?

So whether it's from petroleum or from plants, SLS has become a controversial ingredient in home and personal products mostly due to supply chain issues and where it’s sourced.

Some companies don’t care where they source their oil (i.e., palm kernel, coconut, petroleum). So, for example, petroleum is bad per se, but how it’s sourced is what causes issues.

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How does the chemical process of SLS work?

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So, whether it’s petroleum- or plant-based, the chemical process of making sodium lauryl sulfate is generally the same. You start with a raw material, in this case a natural fat like coconut or palm kernel oil.

You extract the oil from the plant and it becomes what’s known as a triglyceride. You then hydrolyze it and it transforms into a fatty acid.

From there, you functionalize it to turn it into a fatty alcohol before putting it through a sulfation process which turns it into sodium lauryl sulfate.

So, to make it even shorter, SLS goes from a fat or oil to an alcohol to a surfactant.

So, is sodium lauryl sulfate safe?

SLS is a very common ingredient found in everyday items like soaps and detergents and it’s even in shampoos and toothpastes. Pretty much anything that foams or lathers, there’s a good chance that sodium lauryl sulfate is in the product. It is widely considered to be a safe, efficacious ingredient.

Grove Tip

Can SLS irritate your skin?

While rare, it is possible for SLS to irritate the skin. Most people have no problem with SLS. Think about how many times you wash your hands during the day or the kind of dish soap you use; chances are SLS is in there and doesn’t cause any issues. Should you experience some irritation, look for more milder, SLS-free product options.

What kinds of products is sodium lauryl sulfate in?

SLS is found in everyday, common, household products, including:

  • Cleaning products
  • Powder and liquid detergents
  • Grooming products
  • Hair products
  • Dental care products
  • Bath products
  • Creams and lotions

Grove Tip

What are the sodium lauryl sulfate dangers?

Any of those potential dangers you might’ve heard about, like losing your hair or causing cancer or any of that, haven’t been scientifically linked to sodium lauryl sulfate. For more information, we encourage you to read up about SLS from the following resource:

Seventh Generation also has scientific data on the use of SLS in its products and will send documentation to anyone who asks for it. Request a copy here.

Who should avoid SLS?

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Sensitive skin groups who have experienced skin irritation from surfactants or other chemicals from soaps and detergents may want to avoid SLS, and opt for a more mild alternative. While it is possible for sodium lauryl sulfate to irritate skin, it is also very unusual.

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