One Ingredient at a time series: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

Everything you need to know about Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Did you know SLS is in everything from cosmetics, shampoo, soap and even toothpaste? Read about why you should be avoiding it and how to live a more mindful chemical free lifestyle. Organic, natural health, green living, chemical free, non toxic, chemical conscious

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SLS or sodium lauryl sulfate is a hard chemical to get away from.  I feel like it is literally in everything and it seems to have mixed reviews.  On the Environmental Working Group’s website it has a rating of 1-2 which is actually pretty good.  So what gives?

What is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

According to EWG SLS is a surfactant, denaturant, cleansing, and foaming agent. [source] Basically it’s a very effective detergent that makes a foaming lather.  Most shampoos, body washes, face cleansers, dish soaps, and toothpastes among other products contain SLS.

Let’s break it down

Surfactants, according to Wikipedia, lower the surface tension between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid. Denaturing, per google, means “destroy the characteristic properties of (a protein or other biological macromolecule) by heat, acidity, or other effects that disrupt its molecular conformation.”  These two qualities make SLS effective for cleaning.  Sodium lauryl sulfate breaks down the soil particles and causes a nice lather and foaming effect.  Foam easily whisks the dirt away.  But don’t let lather and foam fool you.  Cosmetics aren’t the only products that contain SLS.  Sodium lauryl sulfate is found in engine degreasers and industrial strength detergents.  It is classified by the USDA for use as an herbicidal and pesticidal soap.

Yes that chemical you are washing your face, body, skin, and hair with, as well as putting in your mouth and brushing your teeth with is also used as a pesticide.  Sodium lauryl sulfate is a well known skin and eye irritant.  If you’ve ever gotten shampoo in your eyes then you know what I’m talking about.  Need your skin irritated to test out a new skin soothing product?  SLS is used in research studies exactly for that purpose.

How is it processed?

SLS is manufactured by a chemical process. Lauryl alcohol (1-dodecanol, CH3(CH2)10CH2OH) is the main feedstock and may be obtained by converting (reducing) coconut oil fatty acids into alcohols (HSDB 2002b). [source]

It is derived from coconut which can be generally misleading at times.  I’ve noticed a lot of the “green” products I buy use a different form of SLS labeled as sodium coco sulfate or something similar.  Then next to the name it says (coconut based cleanser) which brings me to my next point…

Sodium Coco Sulfate is safe though right?

Commercial SLS may be manufactured by a process that alters naturally occurring coconut oil fatty acids (see Evaluation Question # 1). For example, “sodium coco sulfate,” which has the same CAS number as SLS, is commercially available and advertised as a naturally-derived alternative because the lauryl alcohol is derived from coconut oils (ChemistryStore 2002).

Evaluation Question #3: Is the petitioned substance created by naturally occurring biological processes? (From 7 U.S.C. § 6502 (21).)  SLS is not created by naturally occurring biological processes (see Evaluation Questions #1 and #2). SLS  can be chemically manufactured from naturally occurring coconut oil fatty acids, but these substances are altered to produce SLS. [source]

So- no.  In my opinion all the product manufacturers who say they are using a safer version of sodium lauryl sulfate that is naturally derived from coconut are misleading you.

Health Concerns

Some of the health concerns associated with sodium lauryl sulfate are:

  • Skin and eye irritation.  Some people are so sensitive they get a skin rash with use or ulcers in their mouth from sodium lauryl sulfate in toothpaste.
  • Possible endocrine and hormone disruption and negative effects on reproductive health.
  • Some studies have detected the presence of residual SLS in various organs of the body including the heart.  The long term effect is not known. There are concerns about toxic build up over time.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate itself is not shown to be carcinogenic.  The concern is dioxane contamination through the manufacturing process.  Dioxane is a known cancer causing agent.

How about SLES?

Sodium laureth sulfate is also a surfactant and detergent.  It acts basically the same as sodium lauryl sulfate but it produced slightly differently and has more concern for contamination with dioxane.  [Source]

Environmental concerns

There is an interesting article published by the USDA about the effects of sodium lauryl sulfate on the environment.  It was written in response to a petition for SLS to be used as an herbicide in organic farming.  It was not approved.  It is toxic to aquatic wildlife.  It is moderately toxic to freshwater fish and invertebrates.  I found the part about the buildup in our waterways and how it can effect ducks the most interesting/concerning.

Improper and/or excessive use of SLS could adversely affect the survival and function of soil organisms, including earthworms, , bacteria, algae, and protozoa. SLS misuse or spills could also result in the damage and even death of areas of organic crops given its non-selective herbicidal properties.

Ducks have been observed to be at risk for hypothermia when exposed to detergent-polluted waters in low temperatures (e.g., 0.07 mM SDS at 0 degrees C) (Singer and Tjeerdema 1993). Surfactants such as SDS  have the potential to enhance the penetration of water into the birds’ feathers. This may decreases the feathers’ insulating capacity, which decreases the bird’s ability to maintain body temperature. However, if used properly, direct discharges to water should not occur, and aquatic organism and waterfowl exposures  should be minimal.

Here is the source: [USDA info on SLS]  This petition has excellent information as well as further linked sources.  I highly recommend you read it if you want to read more in depth about sodium lauryl sulfate.

This quote is directly from the CDC website:

 The substance is toxic to aquatic organisms. It is strongly advised that this substance does not enter the environment.

Source [CDC]


How can I limit my exposure?

Switch to safer products!  This is easier said than done.  A lot of products that are labeled as SLS free still contain sodium coco sulfate or other derivatives of SLS.

Still, read labels

SLS is in almost every commercial shampoo, soap, cosmetic, and toothpaste.  Look for SLS free products or make your own.  I personally use castile soap for a lot of things.  I’ve found various DIY recipes for hand and dish soap on pinterest.  I also started making my own bar soaps.

Here is an easy foaming soap recipe from the blog An Oregon Cottage .  That’s all you need is a foaming soap dispenser bottle like this one!

The commercial toothpaste and dish soap I am currently using contain sodium coco sulfate.  I am still searching for commercial products that my husband will use as well.  He is very picky with DIY things I make, as well as things that are a little “too natural” in his opinion.


The safest toothpaste I have found is Earthpaste.  But be forewarned!  It does not foam and my husband states it has “no consistency”.  I used it for 6 months but eventually got tired of buying more than one toothpaste because he would not use it.  So now we use Desert Essence.  It does contain sodium coco sulfate but I figure it’s better than regular toothpaste.  Don’t get me started on flouride.


I’m obsessed with Soapnuts but also use a few others.  You can read my post on natural laundry detergents here.


Here’s a great blog post on how to DIY low poo/no poo shampoos from Almost Exactly Blog.  I have been using Morrocco Method Shampoos for almost a year now.  You can check their website out here: Morrocco Method {Sadly I am not an affiliate for Morrocco Method, though I wish I was because I LOVE their products.}

Body / Baby:

I have been using Desert Essence Organics Baby cleanser when I give my daughter a bath.  You can also use it on yourself if you are looking for a place to start.  Otherwise in the shower I use natural bar soap I either make myself or buy locally, or you can use castile soap.


What do you think?

Since it’s only a 1 on EWG I don’t think it’s something you should be panicking about.  However I do think it’s extremely important to be mindful of what you are exposing yourself to day in and day out.  Especially since SLS is in a LOT of products.

Do you avoid Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

Let me know in the comments!



  1. Lauren O

    What a great idea for a blog series! I feel like some of the ratings on EWG can be misleading! They may rank products a 1 or 2 but then if you read more you might find that an ingredient has, for example, moderate or high concern for allergies. Just goes to show you really need to do your research and read between the lines! Oh man, I would love to get your take on fluoride. I’ve been anti-fluoride for some time now but recently I’ve started to second guess myself. What’s a mama to do?! I don’t use any products with fluoride on myself or Sean and our town water is not fluoridated which I love. But I’ve also had several small cavities since I went off fluoride yet I take really good care of my teeth and have never had issues in the past. I am currently using (and loving) David’s toothpaste. I tried and failed at liking Earth Paste. hehe


      Yes its a little misleading especially if you find other research articles or something from the CDC that says it shouldnt be in the environment. I wonder if theres some sort of European data base with info bc they seem to be more on top of things. Thats interesting about the flouride and cavities. I haven’t gone to the dentist in a while but I always have a problem with cavities – since I was a kid. I used to get flouride treatments at the dentist and I still got cavities so I really don’t know how related it is. Plus we always had flourinated city water growing up. I’ve read articles about using natural toothpaste to help your teeth re-mineralize. I don’t think mine have and don’t know what to really look for but for now I’m sticking with natural toothpaste. And now we have well water and will have the same in Vermont! I will look into David’s paste! Thanks for reading ???

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