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Sodium Laureth Sulfate - Is it Dangerous?

written by: Lindsay Evans•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 8/20/2010

Many natural personal care products advertise their products as being free of sodium laureth sulfate. What is sodium laureth sulfate and why should you avoid it?

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    What is Sodium Laureth Sulfate?

    Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is an inexpensive surfactant that is a highly effective foaming agent. Though it is a separate product than sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), the safety of both ingredients have recently been under questioning. Both are commonly found in soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, body wash and other foaming products.

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    Health and Safety Concerns of SLES

    The Environmental Canada Domestic Substance List classifies SLES as a high human health priority. SLES is listed as a possible carcinogen and as expected to be toxic or harmful to humans.

    Sodium laureth sulfate has been shown to be irritating to the skin and eyes. Many people with sensitive skin notice their conditions improve greatly when they avoid products containing SLES and SES. Animal studies have shown eye and skin irritation at very low levels of exposure to SLES.

    SLES may also be bioaccumulative, meaning that the chemical can persist and accumulate in your body. This effect contributes to the organ system toxicity effect of SLES, as your body must work hard to process it for removal. What's more, although SLES does not contain the known carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane, this chemical can form from SLES and contaminate the product. 1,4-Dioxane is also a suspected hormone disruptor.

    For links to research documenting the information above, please visit the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database information page on Sodium Laureth Sulfate.

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    How to Avoid SLES

    When sodium laureth sulfate is so prevalent in personal care products today, how do consumers avoid it? Although both SLES and SLS are widely used in most soap and detergent products, it is not impossible to find a hard working soap free of both ingredients.

    Soaps that are SLES and SLS free are made from 100% vegetable-based oils. Pure castile soaps, such as those from Dr. Bronner's and Kirk's Castile, are commonly available at natural food markets.

    Dr. Bronner's liquid castile soap can be used as a multipurpose soap for many household uses. Dr. Bronner's soap can be used as a body wash, for handwashing, as a shampoo for people and pets, and even in your laundry. For a complete list of the 18-in-1 uses for Dr. Bronner's soap, see here.

    You can also avoid SLES by making your own cleaning products at home from natural ingredients. Below are links to some helpful articles on how to make your own cleaning products.

    Homemade Laundry Detergent Recipes

    How to Make Dishwasher Detergent

    Organic Hair Care: Make it at Home