Sulfates in Cosmetics. Are they all that bad?

A conversation arrose on Twitter last night about the use of sulfates in cosmetics with the general consensus being that they should be avoided. My view has always been that it’s all dependant on how they’re formulated into a product, however I fully accept that they’re one of the main cosmetic ingredient families people tend to react to. I’m always very careful on making sure my opinions are delivered as such as even though I hate to admit it, I can be wrong. So time to hit books, medical journals and web. Everything is referenced and I am not pushing to find a particular outcome either way.

A Google search for the term “Sulfates in Cosmetics” gives results with titles such as “Dangers Of Sulfates in Skin Care and Personal Care Products” and “Sulfates: Are These Harmful Ingredients in Cosmetics?”. There’s obviously bad news surrounding these ingredients.

So what are sulfates? They’re known as surfactants or detergents and foam up to cleanse the skin to take away dirt, grime, grease and general facial muck. They’re popularly known to cause dryness which can lead to irritation of the skin’s surface. My belief and understanding is that if these surfactants, which undeniably effective cleansers, are formulated with enough humectants and emollients, the drying effects can be counteracted. The most common sulfates are the following, found in many shampoos, facial washes and body cleansers:

[column size=’1/2′]

• cocamidopropyl betaine
• cocamidopropyl hydroxysulfaine
• sodium lauroyl lactylate
• sodium lauroyl sarcosinate


[column size=’1/2′ position=’last’]

• sodium cocoyl isethionate
• sodium cocoate
• sodium cocaamphoacetate
• sodium laureth sulfate


So is it true that is causes sensitivity? In October 2007 [CAS No: 151-21-3 ][1], NICNAS – Australia’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme, reported that Sodium Laureth Sulfate (one of the most commonly used sulfates in cosmetics) “is a skin and eye irritant in rabbits, and skin irritation has been observed in clinical studies in humans. Indeed in the human 4-hour patch test for irritation, SLS is used at 20% as a positive control to identify substances or preparations that would be on the borderline for classification as irritant. SLS is also reported to irritate the respiratory tract.” Through tests on Beagle dogs, SLS was not found to be carcinogenic or genotoxic so good news there, although not so much for the dogs.

To my next port of call, the International Journal of Toxicology, specifically to the Final Report of the Amended Safety Assessment of Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Related Salts of Sulfated Ethoxylated Alcohols[2]. Before getting stuck into the journal, the abstract outlines that “Sodium and ammonium laureth sulfate have not evoked adverse responses in any toxicological testing” and that “Sodium laureth sulfate was demonstrated to be a dermal and ocular irritant but not a sensitiser”. Meaning that SLS irritates the skin, but through prolonged use, it doesn’t appear to increase the sensitivity of the skin. However “in practice they are not regularly seen to be irritating because of the formulations in which they are used”. So by themselves they do cause irritation, it’s safe to conclude that by now, but when formulated effectively, the irritation can disappear. It’s about quantity and use, a very fine art in cosmetology and my initial belief seems to be holding some weight. If you drink a glass of water, it’ll hydrate your body and keep you alive, but if you submerge yourself in it, you’ll drown and die.

In a study into the Effects of disinfectants and detergents on skin irritation[3], it was concluded that “the detergent SLS produced stronger barrier disruption, erythema and dryness than the alcohol-based preparations”. So using washes containing Sodium Laureth Sulfate, showed a stronger disruption on the skin’s function to retain moisture than when using an alcohol based cleansing gel. This is pretty striking.

Through reading, researching and listening, there’s no denying that sulfates are attributed to causing dryness and irritation, but when used effectively and safely in well formulated cleansers, are less likely always lead to irritation and will not increase sensitivity in the long term. There are many safer and effective chemical alternatives out there, rendering their use slightly unnecessary. So why are they used? Because they’re cheap and effective. Companies prefer to take the risk in using such an ingredient that could cause irritation in favour of lowering their profit margins by using ingredients that would do the same thing but are less likely to cause irritation.

If, for example, the FDA approved human waste for cosmetic formulation as an effective cleanser, there’d be Crème de la Crap lining the shelves of every major department store in the country. Ultimately, avoid sulfates if you can, but a cleanser that contains it is not necessarily bad as results differ from person to person and can give very effective, beneficial, long term results. I myself have never suffered adverse skin reactions and have continued to experience good results using a plethora of sulfate based cleansers, but making sure the other ingredients, active or otherwise, balance out any potential dryness.

1 Sodium Lauryl Sulfate CAS No: 151-21-3, NICNAS, publications/information_sheets/ existing_chemical_information_sheets/ ecis_sls_pdf.pdf

Final Report of the Amended Safety Assessment of Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Related Salts of Sulfated Ethoxylated Alcohols, Valerie C. Robinson, Wilma F. Bergfeld, Donald V. Belsito, Ronald A. Hill, Curtis D. Klaassen, James G. Marks, Jr, Ronald C. Shank, Thomas J. Slaga, Paul W. Snyder and F. Alan Andersen, International Journal of Toxicology 2010 29: 151S DOI: 10.1177/1091581810373151

Effects of disinfectants and detergents on skin irritation, Caroline M. Slotosch, Günter Kampf, Harald Löffler, Article first published online: 30 JUL 2007, DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0536.2007.01200.x

Posted at 11:42 February 1, 2013
Nail Courses

These cosmetics items are popular in UK’s every states. People like their items most. They upgrate their item.

Posted at 21:01 January 6, 2013
Pampered Prince

Very interesting post Thom. I personally choose to avoid sulfates in skincare for the simple reason I already have problematic skin. The more I can do to cause less irritation the better. I agree they’re effective cleaning agents but it the wrong formulation, they can be TOO effective & take TOO much away from the skin.
As there are so many great products that don’t contain sulfates, then why bother with the products that do. That said, if a product contains SLS it’s sixth on the ingredient list for example then I would happily consider it.

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