I now duck as the tomatoes start to fly.
You might call it a brilliant stroke of marketing genius. You might call it a widespread hoax. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is surrounded by some of the greatest confusion and mis-information in the industry. In short, SLS has a very bad reputation, and it is such a phenomenon that I think somebody should write a book on it. It has become more vilified than any other chemical in body care, while those that are much more problematic pass freely beneath the radar.
The most damaging claim against SLS is that it is carcinogenic, because it supposedly creates nitrosamines. However, since it contains neither a nitrogen nor an amino group, this is chemically impossible.
SLS is in our Sal Suds all purpose cleaner, and here’s what we say about it on the bottle: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a surfactant that cuts grease and dirt, generates copious suds, and biodegrades quickly and completely. SLS is made by combining a sulfate group with lauryl alcohol from coconut oil, then attaching sodium. If improperly formulated, SLS can irritate skin, but our superb formula uses coco-betaine and lauryl glucoside to counter this.
Sal Suds is a mild, synthetic detergent, not a body care product. SLS does not, and never has, appeared in any of our soaps since the saponified vegetable oils in our Castile soaps are much, much better for our skin, and can be certified organic. SLS is synthesized (read “man made” or “processed”) even though it does have a coconut base.
I think this article has a good overview of the rumors. It is written by Ed Friedlander, a pathologist from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. I haven’t met him. He may or may not know about Dr. Bronner’s. (Take note that David Steinman, to whom Ed refers at the end, has done a great deal of excellent research and analysis on the topic of 1,4 Dioxane in bodycare products, among things.)
I don’t know who or what started all the fuss. There’s some idea that the initial claims were written by a company making a rival chemical to SLS. Or perhaps it’s that SLS is such an effective cleaner even in really greasy jobs, there must be something malignant about it. Or it could have been an understandable mix-up with sodium laureth sulfate, which is indeed linked to carcinogens (see my next blog on the “-eth’s”). Nevertheless, the rumor about its carcinogenic power spread like wildfire over the web, assisted by the general public’s accurate and growing suspicions that body care companies were lying to them.
Unfortunately, SLS became the scapegoat for these suspicions, and real culprits slipped by. Huge corporate body care companies took full advantage to extract as many dollars as they could out of this paranoia. Soon, the onslaught of “SLS-Free” products hit the shelves in Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural stores. The thing is, many of the other ingredients in these products were petroleum based, and much more harmful to the body and the environment than SLS. However, with this artificial “SLS-Free” distinction, these green-washed products soon became best-sellers even within the super-green community.
That is why the whole SLS panic really bothers me. Aside from the fact that most of it is untrue, it is being exploited by the most unscrupulous companies. Frequently, chemical magazines contain articles about how to replace SLS in body care products with petroleum based water softeners. Trust me when I tell you that petroleum based water softeners are worse.
When SLS is not formulated properly, it can be an irritant to the skin. And since I can’t vouch for how it is formulated by each company that uses it, I avoid it across the board in all body care products. It should never show up in certified organic products. However, it appears in almost every conventional toothpaste and shampoo, and even in many that are sold by “natural” brands. Since there are tentative links to causing canker sores in the mouth, as well as acknowledged skin irritation when not balanced properly, I think it’s best to steer clear of it for body care. I can do without the bubbles.
So, this blog has gone on long enough. I haven’t addressed the whole SLES and 1,4 Dioxane issue (which is linked to Sodium Laureth Sulfate, among other things, but not Sodium Lauryl Sulfate). I will pick that topic up next time.
Note: My brother Mike Bronner had a hand in writing part of this.