Our Chemical Attraction
How many chemicals do you put on, or in your body on a daily basis? How many of those are natural? How do we even know? And as long as they work, should we even care? Well what if I told you that one of the most common chemical additives found in products that many of us regularly apply to our bodies is synthesised using sulphuric acid, and has been linked to a variety of health concerns such as … - I bet you’re starting to care now.
The answer to the first question I posed is staggering: on average both men and women are, often without realising, adding upwards of 200 chemicals to our bodies every single day. Seems like a lot, but if you’re like me, you don’t really take much notice of the long ingredient lists on the back of our healthcare or skincare products. We trust that the products we use to take care of our skin, scalp, hair and teeth really do take care of us. Well, maybe we shouldn’t! It’s time to take back some control over what goes in and on our bodies, and the best way to do that is to get educated. Today we are going to focus on one of the most commonly used chemicals in our homes, but we will continue to expose the dangerous chemicals hidden in healthcare products in future posts. You may have heard of today’s insidious ingredient, it’s sodium lauryl sulphate.
Sodium Lauryl what now?
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, often abbreviated to SLS, is a surfactant that is commonly seen in skincare and cleaning items that are found in most household cupboards. Surfactants work by allowing oil and water to bond – something which you will know does not ordinarily happen if you’ve ever seen an oil slick on the road or added drops of essential oil to water in an oil burner. But the structure of soap molecules, which have a hydrophilic (water loving) head and a lipophilic (oil loving) tail, enables greasy dirt and grime to be grabbed by the oil loving tail and pulled away by the water loving head, leaving the washed surface clean. SLS lowers the surface tension in water, and this allows products it is found in to spread out more easily and penetrate whatever is being cleaned much more efficiently – well that’s debatable, but more on that later!
Nothing too alarming so far, right?
Even with this basic understanding of how and why SLS works, it makes sense that the most popular and ‘effective’ products on the market contain surfactants such as Sodium lauryl sulphate. And indeed, SLS can be found in a huge variety of products – from shampoo to engine degreaser, toothpaste to industrial strength disinfectants and detergents, the list goes on. It is sometimes marketed as being a naturally derived ingredient because it can be derived from natural substances like coconut oil, but in its final form SLS is far from a natural ingredient and is chemically toxic.
But hold on, I hear you say, that sounds like a pretty dramatic statement to make about something that is so common and marketed as skincare. Well as I alluded to earlier, SLS is synthesised when compounds such as fatty acids or fatty alcohols are reacted with chemicals such as potassium hydroxide or sulfuric acid. You might find this shocking (I know I did!) but the benefits to those manufacturing the products we take for granted easily explain why it is so widespread. When you take into account the fact that it is super cheap and easy to manufacture it becomes less surprising to see SLS everywhere despite the fact that it comes with some scary truths which we are about to delve into – that’s right, we haven’t even got to the really scary part yet!
The Scary Part(s) about SLS…
SLS is a powerful foaming agent, giving it another tick for manufacturers, who believe that consumers equate lots of suds with cleaning strength. It could easily be argued that we are encouraged to believe this so as to justify or perpetuate the use of SLS because not only, as I mentioned before, does it allow products to be made cheaply, it also creates a cycle of dependence on these products. Ok I know this might be starting to sound ‘conspiracy theory-ish’ but consider the cycle induced by SLS use and it is easy to see how this conspiracy theory actually sounds alarmingly familiar. Since a typical shampoo contains about 50% sodium laurel sulfate let’s use this as an example. Commonly used shampoos foam beautifully, but this lathering does not mean one is cleaning the hair in a healthy fashion. Their cleaning power is overwhelming, stripping the hair and skin of natural oils (we discussed the importance of oils/lipids for healthy skin in a previous post)and making it look clean - for a little while - but in doing so causes the scalp to panic and overproduce oil to compensate. Oil stripping also creates the need to use a second product – conditioner - after shampooing with SLS, in order to put back “manageability”.
And, usually, the conditioner contains more chemicals, thus creating a vicious cycle resulting in long-lasting damage to the skin, scalp and hair that is masked by further product use. But SLS does more than strip the hair of its natural oils. It destroys beneficial bacteria that are essential to maintaining a healthy scalp and head of hair. Once the “good” bacteria have been removed, harmful germs have an open playing field, resulting in rashes, hair loss and allergic reactions.
Whether or not you can relate to this first hand, the facts are that SLS is widely known to be a skin irritant. So widely known, it is even used by cosmetic companies to CAUSE skin irritations when testing the healing properties of a lotion to determine the lotion’s effectiveness. It is also an irritant to eyes, having been shown to cause cataracts in adults and poor eye development in children’s eyes.
And it gets worse. Even at very low levels the product may be absorbed through the skin, with the penetration enhancing abilities of SLS meaning it can permeate the eyes, brain, heart and liver, but this quality also allows it to help other chemicals get into your body.
Its corrosive properties (which make it the perfect ingredient in engine degreasers, floor cleaners and car wash soaps) compromise our cells, fats and proteins – the building blocks of skin and muscle - leaving them more vulnerable to other toxic chemicals. And where might those toxic chemicals come from? Well since SLS emits toxic fumes such as Sodium Oxides and Sulfur Oxides when heated, look no further than a hot shower or a sink full of washing-up.
As if poisoning our bodies isn’t bad enough, SLS is also extremely harmful to the environment. In addition to the manufacturing process itself being highly polluting and our use of SLS in household products polluting our groundwater, it is introduced to the environment through its use as a pesticide and herbicide where it becomes toxic to fish and other aquatic animals. Yep that’s right, a product that we are applying to our faces, mouths, heads and bodies is commonly used to kill plants and insects.
According to some, the final nail in the coffin of SLS is that it can cause the formation of carcinogenic compounds when reacting with other ingredients, and so there has been a huge amount of debate around and studies into the possibility that SLS causes cancer. While these studies are not definitive, there is certainly enough evidence out there outlining the dangers of SLS – try 16,000 studies – which surely tells us that we should be doing all we can to avoid this chemical.
But what makes it even more dangerous is that saying no to SLS can be tricky, since it is often hidden or obscured in ingredients lists as one of the over 150 different names by which it is known, so it is helpful to know a couple of its common alias’ which include sodium dodecyl sulfate, sulfuric acid, monododecyl ester, sodium salt, or another combination of these chemical terms.
OK, so what’s the alternative?
It’s easy to want to make a decision to cut sodium laurel sulphate from your life, but once you realise how many products you currently use contain it this may seem a little daunting. But while it may take a little more conscious effort, it certainly is possible and there is a growing trend of people doing just that.
For those wanting to know exactly what is in their products, making your own is a surprisingly do-able option that you may not have considered before. This can be a fun activity to do with a group of like-minded friends who want to take control over their skincare products, and making larger batches is often a more economical way to stock your bathroom cabinet. There are a number of other available surfactants you can use when making soaps and other products which do not have the same widespread negative impacts as SLS.
A more convenient option for some may be to simply opt for products that do not contain SLS, and there are a growing number of such products on the market. More and more companies are choosing to leave out SLS and some will confirm this on their product labelling, so the safest way to shop is to stick to brands that are clear about their ingredients and/or specifically state something along the lines of “SLS-free” - now that you know what this means you will definitely find it easier to notice when browsing. Try using a face cleanser, for example, that does not contain SLS, and you will find that the natural softness of your skin is maintained as well as feeling better about making a healthier choice for yourself and the environment!
Some helpful links for further reading...
As you can probably tell I’ve really only just scratched the surface, so doing some of your own further reading on SLS and going SLS-free is a great idea. This site is a great place to start, but there are many articles and forum posts discussing alternative options. We here at 13 Seeds have a range of SLS-free skincare products, including a cleanser, which you can find on this website.