Let’s Talk About Sulfates

28 Feb

I know this is Exfoliation Week, and I’m going to get to another of my favorite exfoliants shortly. But after my rude awakening yesterday, I wanted to take a pause to talk about sulfates.

It's exfoliation. For your teeth.

If you do some research on the word “sulfates,” you find a couple of things. One, the Wikipedia entry for sulfates doesn’t actually mention them in a cosmetic sphere at all. Two, there are a LOT of different “sulfates” out there. And three, images like this:

So what the heck are sulfates, what do they do, and should we really be worried about them? Unfortunately, I can only partially answer those questions, but I can provide my insight into the matter.

My first encounter with discussion of sulfates came when I got a keratin smoothing treatment on my hair. Jen from Pinup Salon told me that I needed to use sulfate-free shampoos after the treatment to keep my hair smooth. The reason for this is that the most common sulfate found in shampoos is sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, which is a surfactant that is harsh enough to wash the keratin right out of my hair. Basically, SLS is an abrasive scrubber that gets rid of dirt, oil, and anything else, stripping your hair right down to just the hair itself. There was briefly a big cancer scare regarding SLS, which has subsequently been disproven. What is not disputed, however, is that SLS can cause skin irritation in some individuals, especially when left on for long periods of time. What I found most interesting, however, is that SLS is actually in most commercial toothpastes and has been found to aggravate, and possibly trigger, canker sores. If you’ve never had a canker sore, then just get down on your knees and thank God right now, because you are a lucky em effer. Canker sores are genetic, so if you’re an adult reading this and have never had one, the chances are good you never will. If you’re like me, however, and have suffered from canker sores your entire life, then you know just how awful these mouth lesions are. They’re EXTREMELY painful and can interfere with eating, talking, swallowing, and kissing, to name a few mouth-related activities. I have suffered through monthly canker outbreaks for my entire life – until I read about SLS. I immediately switched to an SLS-free toothpaste (Burt’s Bees makes a great one that still contains fluoride) and VIVA LA DIFFERENCE! I literally would get a cluster of cankers once a month around my period. We’re talking anywhere from 2 – 4 cankers a month. Now I get one every few months at most. I cannot believe this information is not more widely known and disseminated, but let me just say it here once more to make everyone aware:


Okay, so moving on. I switched away from SLS shampoos and toothpastes, and since I knew SLS was causing me mouth misery once a month, I decided to eliminate SLS from my life altogether. I started purging SLS face washes (including one of my favorites, a L’Occitane foaming wash), SLS body washes (more favorites – Philosophy, really?), and any other foamy product that said SLS in the ingredients. Here’s where things get confusing, though. What about ammonium lauryl sulfate, or ALS? Not as bad, just as bad, worse? According to some sources, it’s actually worse than SLS. According to MOST sources, it’s at least just as bad. So ALS has to go, too.

This then begs the question… Are all sulfates bad? If you refer to the first picture I posted above, some people certainly seem to think so. I’ve also noticed a trend when it comes to organic/natural products:

NO SULFATES. Not “No SLS, No ALS.” No sulfates PERIOD.

While in the shower this morning, I carefully read the label on my Estée Lauder face wash, and noticed the ingredient sodium coceth sulfate. I had to do some serious research to find anything viable out about this, and I guess the real concern about this or ANY sulfate is whether it has been contaminated in the ethoxylation process by the potentially hazardous ether of 1,4-Dioxane. Confused yet? I am. In spite of the shunning of all sulfates by some, SkinDeep seems to have little to no information on sodium coceth sulfate, which is some small consolation, I suppose.

After all this research, what conclusion can we really come to? SLS is clearly an irritant – I can tell you that firsthand, based on my canker sore history. Most people seem to agree that ALS is as bad if not worse than SLS. So probably cutting SLS and ALS out of your beauty routine is not a bad idea, as long as it’s feasible for you. More and more companies are releasing sulfate-free products, so your choices are getting better by the day.

But what about other sulfates? The jury’s still out. This is a decision you’re going to have to make for yourself. As for me, I think I’ll finish my Estée Lauder face wash, which has SCS, but pitch my Laura Mercier exfoliator, which contains SLS. And I emailed L’Occitane yesterday to see if they make any sulfate-free face washes, because the ingredient list on their website looks like this:

Seriously? There are more ingredients than that in my tea.

Very helpful, L’Occitane. Very helpful bullsh*t.

3 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Sulfates”

  1. Somer March 12, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    Thank you for your eye-opening expose on SLS and other sulfites. I am so relieved that Burts Bees is not only SLS free but contains flouride!

    • katej78 March 12, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

      My pleasure! If I can save one person from unnecessary canker sores, my job is done! 😀


  1. Phyto Haircare « Lipgloss & Life - July 20, 2012

    […] only realizing now, as I type this, that Phytojoba actually contains sulfates. I don’t know how the hell I missed this – as you may know from reading my blog, I am […]

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