What are sulfates?

Sulfate is a salt that forms when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical. It’s a broader term for other synthetic sulfate-based chemicals you may be concerned about, such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). These compounds are produced from petroleum and plant sources such as coconut and palm oil. You’ll mostly find them in your cleaning and personal care products.

The main use for SLS and SLES in products is to create lather, giving a stronger impression of cleaning power. While sulfates aren’t “bad” for you, there’s a lot of controversy behind this common ingredient.

Read on to learn the facts and decide whether or not you should go sulfate-free.

Sulfates derived from petroleum are often controversial due to their origin. The biggest concern is the long-term side effects of sulfate production. Petroleum products are associated with climate change, pollution, and greenhouse gases. Sulfates can also be found in some plant products.

Sulfate concerns

  • Health: SLS and SLES can irritate eyes, skin, and lungs, especially with long-term use. SLES may also be contaminated with a substance called 1,4-dioxane, which is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. This contamination occurs during the manufacturing process.
  • Environment: Palm oil is controversial due to the destruction of tropical rainforests for palm tree plantations. Products with sulfates that get washed down the drain may also be toxic to aquatic animals. Many people and manufacturers opt for more environmentally friendly alternatives.
  • Testing on animals: Many products with sulfates are tested on animals to measure the level of irritation to people’s skin, lungs, and eyes. For this reason, many oppose using consumer products that contain SLS and SLES.
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The ingredients SLS and SLES are most commonly found in personal products and cleaning agents such as:

  • liquid soap
  • shampoos
  • laundry detergents
  • dish detergents
  • toothpaste
  • bath bombs

The amount of SLS and SLES in a product depends on the manufacturer. It can range from small amounts to almost 50 percent of the product.

Some sulfates occur naturally and are found in water. Along with other salts and minerals, they help improve the taste of drinking water. Others are found in fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides.

Learn more about SLS »

There is no direct evidence linking SLS and SLES to cancer, infertility, or development issues. These chemicals may slowly build up in your body over long-term use, but the amounts are small.

The highest risk of using products with SLS and SLES is irritation to your eyes, skin, mouth, and lungs. For people with sensitive skin, sulfates may also clog pores and cause acne.

Many products have a lower concentration of SLS or SLES in their formulation. But the longer the products stay in contact with your skin or eyes, the higher the risk of irritation. Rinsing off the product immediately after use reduces risk of irritation.

ProductAverage concentration of SLS
skin cleanser1 percent
lubricant for dissolvable tablets and capsules0.5 to 2 percent
toothpaste1 to 2 percent
shampoos10 to 25 percent

The concentration of SLS in cleaning products may be higher. As with many cleaning products, whether SLS-free or not, prolonged exposure and skin contact to high concentrations can cause irritation. Remember to keep windows open or have a source of ventilation to prevent lung irritation.

Going sulfate-free depends on your concerns. If you’re worried about skin irritation and know that sulfate products are the cause, you can look for products that say sulfate-free or don’t list SLS or SLES in their ingredients. How sulfate affects your skin may also depend on the brand and manufacturer. Not all sources are the same.

Natural alternatives include the following:

For cleaning skin and hair: Opt for solid and oil-based soaps and shampoos rather than liquid. Some products to consider include African black soap and body cleansing oils. Lather and foam aren’t crucial to cleaning skin or hair —sulfate-free products can also do the job.

For cleaning products: You can make cleaning products using diluted white vinegar. If you find vinegar unpleasant, try lemon juice. As long as you can ventilate your space while cleaning, there should be no irritation.

If you’re concerned about the environment and animal testing, know that there is no way of avoiding using petroleum in the production of SLES. Products that say sulfate-free may not necessarily be petroleum-free either. And even plant-derived SLS may not be ethical. Look for products that are certified fair trade or ethical trade.

Sulfates have developed a bad reputation over the years due to their production process and the myth that they’re carcinogens. The largest side effect sulfates may have is the irritation they cause to eyes, skin, or scalp. Try going sulfate-free for a week to see if it makes a difference for you. This can help eliminate sulfate as cause for your irritation.

At the end of the day, sulfates aren’t vital to your personal care or cleaning products. If it’s convenient for you, try going for sulfate-free products.

Keep reading: Using healthy cosmetics »