You don’t even realize how many personal care and beauty products you use everyday, from that glob of toothpaste in the morning to makeup wipes to clean the day’s grime off at night. As a result, we’re putting hundreds of different chemicals onto and into our bodies everyday. Shouldn’t you know what some of those things are? In this column, we chat with cosmetic chemists, doctors, and other experts to dive deep into the ingredient lists of your favorite products.
Otherwise known as: Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, SLS, SLES
What they do: Sulfates are cleansing agents that add foaminess to products.
Where you’ll find them: Shampoo, hand soap, body wash, face soap, toothpaste.
Potential side effects: They can be harsh and cause irritation on the skin and scalp, and also strip hair of oils (because they are cleansers, after all).
Toxicity profile: Sulfates on their own don’t have toxicity concerns, beyond the potential for irritation. However, when manufacturing the products to create the sulfate compound, a by-product called 1,4 dioxane may be found in trace amounts, a by-product proven carcinogenic to mice in the 1970s. The FDA’s statement on 1,4 dioxane acknowledges that while it is carcinogenic in large amounts, a scant dose is found in cosmetics, so it’s not dangerous. The agency has issued guidelines to the cosmetics industry on how to reduce 1,4 dioxane in products, but there is no specific law governing its use.
Expert opinion: According to David Pollock, an expert with years of beauty industry experience who is now an advocate for safe cosmetics, not every sulfate produces toxic by-products. Read labels carefully, because any chemical name ending in “-eth” has the potential to produce 1,4 dioxane. Pollock points out that while trace amounts might not be that concerning, most people use multiple foamy products a day, potentially increasing their exposure level. Also, keep in mind that sulfate manufacturing is not the only process that produces 1,4 dioxane: PEGs or polyethylene glycols are also common 1,4 dioxane producers.
Alternatives: Look for products that say “sulfate-free” on them. An increasing number of brands are producing shampoos and soaps without the harmful chemicals, and oil-based face and body cleansers, which are more gentle, are becoming much more common.