Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate in my Shampoo Toxic or Dangerous?

by Ember

There has been a rising concern over the man-made chemical sodium lauryl sulfate, commonly used in soaps and cleaners like shampoo. Is your shampoo really safe?

Take a minute to collect together your shampoo, hand soap, dish soap, laundry detergent, toothpaste, shaving cream, mouth wash, and if you’ve got it about, perhaps some industrial strength garage cleaner.

Flip them over and read the ingredients listed on the back. It is likely that they all have something in common: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), also known as sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS). You may also come across sodium-coco sulfate, which is almost the same chemical, just slightly less processed industrially.

You may have already heard of these, and if you throw the term “sodium lauryl sulfate” into Google it will return loads of articles full of warnings, with words like toxins, carcinogens, cancer, and other evils.

Some sound more researched, while others clearly have no sense of what they are talking about. Looking at it from the perspective of a molecular biologist, it comes across as a bit sensationalist to me, and I think it is important to bring a bit of fact-based truth to the issue. So, is your shampoo causing you harm?

What is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

Sodium lauryl sulfate is derived from coconut plants, and is then processed into the very popular cleaning agent.

A simple explanation of the chemical is that it has a fatty acid chain on one end of the molecule, attached to a long carbon chain that makes up a salt on the other end of the molecule.

The fatty acid end will pick up fats, such as oils in hair, while the salt end will dissolve in water. This helps wash away dirt saturated oils, when you rinse shampoo out of your hair or soap off of your hands.

It is quite a nifty and effective chemical. It is abundant enough, and is easily and cheaply attained, which is why it has become so ubiquitous in all types of cleaners and soaps.

This chemical’s ability to remove oils so easily is also why it is found in laundry and dish soaps, as well as in industrial strength cleaning supplies used in places like an auto repair shop.

It is worth noting that just because this same chemical is also used in harsher cleaners, they are by no means used in the same concentration. The chemical is found in a far more diluted form in domestic products.

 A critique of sodium lauryl sulfate in domestic products is that it strips your hair or skin of natural oils, which can leave it very dry. This brings about the need for conditioners and lotions that then replace natural oils with synthetic oils.

While this critique is worth bearing for persons concerned with natural, or organic health and beauty care, it does not mean washing with a soap containing sodium lauryl sulfate is hazardous to your health. And similarly, many of the completely natural products can be equally drying.

Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Dangerous?

In terms of causing health problems, it is not dangerous.

Sodium lauryl sulfate and related chemicals have been shown through clinical trials to be non-toxic, and are not carcinogenic (or cancer causing).

So, if you’ve been reading up on SLS, and similar chemicals, and you’ve been told you are pouring toxins all over your skin and hair, clinical trials show that statement to be totally incorrect.

Most toothpastes also contain SLS
Most toothpastes also contain SLS

While SLS is not a toxin, and won’t cause cancer, it is a known irritant. As per warnings on products, it can cause irritation to the skin and eyes. There has also been some indication that toothpastes containing sodium lauryl sulfate may be linked to canker sores in the mouth, in sensitive individuals.

But, that does not mean there is need for concern. Being a known irritant means it is just that- it is something that may or may not cause irritation to sensitive individuals. Grass is also a known irritant.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) are not the same.

They are similar in function, and somewhat similar in structure, but sodium lauryl sulfates (SLS) are not the same as sodium laureth sulfates (SLES), either of which can be found in any of the listed products.

Sodium laureth sulfate is generally not considered to be any more or less dangerous than sodium lauryl sulfate by itself, but SLES can become contaminated with dioxane, which is a known carcinogen. Reports have shown that low levels of dioxane can be traced in domestic products containing sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).

It would not be a waste of time to avoid products containing sodium laureth sulfate.

A shampoo I found in my shower.
A shampoo I found in my shower.
2nd ingredient is SLS, 3rd is SLES
2nd ingredient is SLS, 3rd is SLES

Would I recommend avoiding domestic products containing Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

Some of the products I use do have SLS, and some do not.

My face soap is hand-made, because I have a lot of problems with acne. So, it doesn’t contain any of these chemicals.  But, my hand soap is whatever is on sale at the drug store around the corner.

Personally, most shampoos make my head itch, and cause dandruff. I found significant improvement after switching to a shampoo that does not contain sodium lauryl sulfate.

It turns out sodium-coco sulfates do not cause itching problems for me, so products containing this form of the chemical work just fine for me. The shampoo I prefer is the ‘Say Yes to Carrots,’ which contains sodium-coco sulfate. I also prefer this shampoo because it is cruelty and paraben free.

Allafia- An all natural hair care line
Allafia- An all natural hair care line
Allafia contains all natural oils and plant-based ingredients
Allafia contains all natural oils and...

There is an ever-growing market for those with similar sensitivity issues, or those who simply want to go a more all-natural rout.

With the advent of using natural, organic health and beauty products quickly approaching a mainstream norm, there many new product lines such as Bert’s Bees, or Alba, as well as long standing products such as the very popular Dr. Bronner’s Magic soaps, frequently showing up in many chain stores.

All of these products are free of man-made chemicals. But, the more natural products do tend to be significantly more expensive than a typical product found in a drug store, or grocery store aisle.

In the end, if your favorite shampoo, mouthwash, or other soaps and hygiene products contains SLS, but has never caused problems with severe dryness or irritation, then there is no pressing health problem. You are safe to keep using it. It isn’t going to kill you.

A man and his shampoo.
A man and his shampoo.

Do you think sodium lauryl sulfate is something to worry about?

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Updated: 09/19/2012, Ember
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Ember on 10/28/2014

othellos- If you've been using the brand and are happy with it, then there is honestly no reason to switch :)

ologsinquito- Awww! I just saw that you pinned it, thank you so much!! <3 What shampoo do you use?

Rose- fair enough that it's really only a problem if it is causing you problems, like dandruff or itchy scalp

ologsinquito on 05/15/2014

I use a shampoo without this toxin as well. This is a great article. I'm voting up and pinning it.

Rose on 11/23/2013

I didn't even realize that sodium laurel sulfate was a problem. Am off to check the shampoos in my bathroom

Ember on 08/24/2013

Natural_Skin_Care- Yes that is true! I've even found some which I'm fond of where I work.

WriterArtist- Yes they are! Thank you for reading :)

WriterArtist on 08/24/2013

These two names Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) are so confusing. Thanks for throwing light on them.

Natural_Skin_Care on 07/12/2013

The good news is that there are so many organic shampoos available.

Ember on 06/11/2013

Thank you for the comments everyone!

Chris-I did talk about how SLES can become contaminated with dioxane, and that it had been traced in household products. That is SLES specifically. SLS is structurally different to SLES and doesn't become contaminated with dioxane like SLES can.

SimplySara- The bad guy here would be the SLES. I know it can be so confusing to keep track of it!


tolovaj- Yes! And yes there are a lot of chemicals in the world...really when you break it down, everything is a chemical or multiple chemicals.

Sam- Thanks! I had several afternoons of reading after my mom gave me a rant about shampoos. I already knew what SLS was but it took reading clinical trials to know what, if any, potential dangers surrounded it.

Jo- :p (this is really really really laaaaaaate, but thanks!)

Chris on 06/09/2013

During the manufacturing process, SLS can definitely be contamined with 1,4 Dioxane, which definitely IS a carcinogen. Please don't say that the only problem with SLS and SLES are sensitivity isses, because it is a known fact of the contamination problem.

katiem2 on 05/02/2013

I think PG is added to anti freeze and is added in small doses to maintain moisture, it is also added to foods you know those label soft!!!

SimplySara on 02/11/2013

I'm kinda of confused about which is the bad guy: Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), or Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)?

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