When it comes to cleansing products, whether it’d be a facial wash, shampoo, or body wash, I almost always prefer one that really foams up and gets all sudsy. Without bubbles, I feel like there’s not much of a cleansing action going on and that the product is not getting rid of the gunk on my skin or my hair as it should. But when I started getting my hair bleached and colored on a semi-regular basis, I feared of stripping my hair of its good new color or worse, killing my hair completely. Then I became careful of the hair products I use and at that time, also meant going sulfate-free or simply bubble-free. But often, these sulfate-free products don’t seem to be doing anything for my hair except protecting its color. There are days when my hair just craves that clean feeling my regular shampoo gives, which made me curious about sodium lauryl sulfate that I took out of my hair products.
What is sodium laureth sulfate or SLES?
Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is a common ingredient or compound found and used in most detergents, soaps, shampoos, facial washes, and the like. SLES acts as a surfactant, meaning it creates tension between solid and liquid, or liquid and liquid, and so on. Explain That Stuff describes it well, “one end of SLES attracts water and the other end attracts dirt or grease, which breaks up the dirt and makes washing it away easier.” It also contributes to the foaming action that we get.
Are products with SLS or SLES bad for you?
Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS, or SLES before it goes through ethoxylation, which is adding ethylene oxide to make substance less harsh), unfortunately are common irritants. SLS is known as a skin irritant that damages the outer layer of the skin, making it itchy, dry, and cracked. It is also the same ingredient that makes shampoo sting your eyes. SLS can also cause irritation in the hair follicles resulting in acne.
SLES, though processed to become milder and less irritating, is not a ‘safer’ choice as its added ethylene oxide is considered toxic, gets easily absorbed by the skin, and can heighten the risk of developing cancer.
These characteristics are also the reasons why products with SLS or SLES need to be washed or rinsed off. Using them often or letting them stay on the skin for prolonged periods of time may cause irritations, or worse, health hazards.
Should we go sulfate-free or live for the foaming action?
I’ve had my fair shares of skincare woes and scares that now, at most times, I do try to play on the supposed safe side of whatchamacallit-free: talc-free, paraben-free, sulfate-free, etc. Nonetheless, it’s hard to say or pinpoint for sure which ingredients can cause adverse reactions or irritations to our body. After all, any ingredient can be an irritant to anyone. Moreover, bad reactions don’t always happen within the next 24 hours or the next few days. In some cases, such as with products with SLS or SLES, the effect may come after consistent use over a long period of time. However, not everyone is comfortable with resorting to this kind of product lifestyle, like giving up the suds that make every cleansing routine seem like a success. Still, it’s best to exercise caution on the products that you use, be heedful of negative reactions, and know when to stop using something.