Updated on
Written by HCHW Writers

When it comes to the hazards hiding inside conventional personal care and cleaning products, probably no ingredient has caused more controversy than sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a surfactant added to everything from toothpaste and shampoo, to hand soap and laundry detergent.

SLS is used to boost a product’s cleaning power and create the foamy sudsy appearance that consumers equate with effectiveness. Many people believe that SLS is a carcinogen, but to date there’s no evidence whatsoever that this common ingredient causes cancer. Nor can it combine with other ingredients and/or environmental pollutants to create new hazards. That bears repeating: SLS has not been linked to cancer. Yet that doesn’t absolve it of all toxicological blame. SLS can irritate eyes and skin. It’s also hazardous to aquatic life. For those reasons, you might choose to avoid it.

SLS is often confused with a related cleaning chemical called sodium laureth sulfate, or SLES, which is used for similar purposes. SLES can also irritate skin and eyes, but SLES has a bigger problem all its own: it is frequently contaminated by a carcinogen called 1,4 dioxane, which is commonly created as a manufacturing process by-product. Many consumers have trouble keeping SLES and SLS apart. They do sound very similar. This may be responsible for the mistaken idea that SLS causes cancer.

The good news is that neither SLES nor SLS is required for consumer products to work. Many formulations, including shampoos and toothpastes, are available in SLS-free versions . Check the ingredients panels of the cleaning and personal care products you use for SLES and SLS to avoid either. Alternatives abound!

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