What Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate And Is It Safe To Use On Your Skin?

Written by Arshiya Syeda

Most people in beauty circles recommend avoiding products with sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) due to its perceived ability to cause skin discomfort and irritation. SLS is among the most maligned ingredients in skin care, and also one of the most misunderstood.

Does SLS harm your skin? Or is the controversy surrounding it merely a result of misinformation? Let us find out here.

What Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)?

Sodium lauryl sulfate is a surfactant and a cleaning agent often used in cosmetics and cleaning products. It is either derived from natural sources like palm kernel and coconut oils or manufactured in a laboratory. It is also known as sodium dodecyl sulfate. It is a common ingredient in toothpaste, shampoos, bath gels, detergents, and floor cleaners.

We are now aware that SLS is a useful ingredient. But does it have any actual benefits for the skin? Read to know.

How Can Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Benefit Your Skin?

SLS is a multi-purpose ingredient known for its numerous uses. Contrary to popular belief, it can be beneficial to your skin in a few ways.

1. Works Up A Rich Lather

SLS is known for its ability to lather up beautifully. It gives you the soothing sensory pleasure of a luxurious lather. A creamy lather also helps cleanse your skin better by drawing out the dirt and oils.

2. Promotes Effective Cleansing

The suds built up by SLS clean your skin more effectively and give you a “squeaky” clean feeling. You can work up a fluffy cloud of soft, cleansing bubbles with just a few drops of the cleansing product.

3. Helps Remove Makeup

Removing stubborn makeup is a major challenge. As per anecdotal evidence, using a facial cleanser with SLS makes makeup removal effortless. The suds help break down the residual makeup on your face and make it easier to wash off.

4. May Fight Bacteria

Many beauty vloggers claim that the anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties of SLS might protect your skin from certain harmful microorganisms. However, scientific research is warranted in this regard.

5. May Make Skin More Permeable

As per anecdotal evidence, topical application of SLS deep-cleanses your skin and makes it more permeable. It also may allow the skin to better absorb nutrients and moisture from the skin care products you apply later.

These are the purported benefits of SLS. It is interesting to observe that most individuals tend to confuse SLS with SLES (sodium laureth sulfate). How are the two different?

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) Vs. Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

SLES is also a great surfactant used for the same purposes as SLS. But they are quite different in certain aspects.

SLS is the parent chemical SLES is derived from (through a process called ethoxylation, where ethylene oxide is introduced). SLES is considered safer than SLS and is more often used in personal care products. It is believed that SLS may irritate the skin a lot more than SLES. SLS is also thought to dissolve proteins in the tissue, unlike SLES.

While many beauty bloggers are against the idea of using SLS on your skin, you can’t deny that working up a rich lather feels soothing and comforting. If you don’t have any underlying skin condition and your skin is not too sensitive, you can get the best out of SLS. Here’s how.

What Is The Best Way To Use Sodium Lauryl Sulfate On Your Skin?

SLS, in general, has a bad reputation. But there is no harm in using products with this ingredient as long as your skin is not too sensitive. Do ensure you use the product in an optimum way to minimize the chances of skin irritation.

Here’s the best way to use SLS on your skin:

1. Thoroughly Wet Your Skin

Thoroughly wet your skin with cool or lukewarm water before applying any product with SLS. Using a surfactant on dry skin is likely to irritate it. If you are using a liquid bath gel, dilute it with a little water before use.

2. Work Up A Rich Lather

One of the most appealing qualities of SLS is its ability to lather up nicely. Once your skin is thoroughly wet, use your cleansing product to work up a rich lather with a little water. Take care to use this lather only in your armpits, and on your torso, legs, and feet. Avoid using products with SLS on your facial skin or the delicate skin on your genitals.

3. Rinse Off Thoroughly

Once you have thoroughly cleaned your body, rinse off all the lather with fresh, flowing water. Ensure no suds remain on your skin. Towel dry.

4. Moisturize

SLS tends to strip off your skin’s oils. Your skin is likely to feel drier after a bath. Apply a moisturizing body lotion on your arms, legs, neck, and shoulders immediately after towel-drying yourself to restore some of the lost moisture.

While bath products with SLS are generally considered safe for daily use, do not let the ingredient stay in contact with your skin for long. Long-term exposure to SLS may lead to certain unpleasant side effects.

What Are Some Potential Side Effects Of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

Scientific research is warranted to substantiate most of the negative effects of SLS. However, anecdotal evidence does state these potential side effects of SLS:

  • Long-term ingestion of SLS may cause kidney and liver damage. It is claimed that SLS gets absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin and gets built up in kidneys or liver. However, research does not support this.
  • SLS may increase cancer risk when used in conjunction with certain other chemicals. But there is no evidence to support that SLS is a carcinogen.
  • Penetration of SLS into the eyes can cause severe redness and irritation.
  • Shampoos with SLS may hinder the hair growth cycle and prolong the hair loss phase.
  • Prolonged exposure of SLS to skin may cause excessive dryness and skin damage.
  • It may cause nausea and vomiting if ingested.
  • It does not degrade easily and stays in the environment for long when washed down the drain.

Now that you are aware about the pros and cons of SLS, you can make an informed choice about its use. Here are a few products likely to contain SLS.

Which Types Of Products Contain Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

SLS is a very common ingredient found in numerous personal care and home care products, owing to its properties as a surfactant and an effective cleaning agent. SLS is usually present in the following products:

  • Soaps
  • Hand washes
  • Facial cleansers
  • Body washes
  • Makeup removers
  • Toothpaste
  • Shampoos
  • Dishwashing liquids
  • Laundry detergents

Closing Thoughts

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is known to be a skin irritant. That said, you need not avoid SLS completely unless you have highly sensitive skin.

Feel free to enjoy an occasional bubble bath or a quick daily shower with body cleansers with SLS as long as you slather on a nourishing moisturizer afterward. However, consider buying SLS-free products if you have dry or sensitive skin.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) bad for the face?

SLS is not considered particularly bad for the face unless you have sensitive skin. However, it is better to avoid using SLS-based products on your face.

Is sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) good for the face?

SLES is a safer alternative to your face than SLS. However, it is preferable to avoid this ingredient as well if you have sensitive skin, especially on your face.

Sources

Articles on StyleCraze are backed by verified information from peer-reviewed and academic research papers, reputed organizations, research institutions, and medical associations to ensure accuracy and relevance. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  1. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC4651417/
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Arshiya Syeda is an editor and certified counselor. Ever the lover of the written word, she served on the editorial boards of her school and college newsletters. Writing articles on hairstyles, hair care, and nutrition helped her combine her love for reading, writing, and research. As an editor, she helps her team members deliver polished and meticulously researched content. Arshiya is fluent in English, Urdu, and Hindi and aims to become a multilinguist by learning German and teaching herself American Sign Language (ASL).