Products that contain sodium laureth sulfate won't melt your skin or cause you to drop dead on the spot. However, your body does absorb small amounts of the chemicals in your cosmetics. Although this process is slow and the amounts small, sodium laureth sulfate raises some real health concerns. As an informed consumer, it's ultimately up to you to know the facts and decide whether you think products with this ingredient are safe to use in your personal grooming regimen.
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What Is Sodium Laureth Sulfate?
Sodium laureth sulfate -- also known as sodium lauryl ether sulfate or SLES -- derives from ethoxylated lauryl acid and acts as a detergent, cleanser and foaming agent in cosmetic products. In some products, it serves as an emulsifying agent to support the blending of liquid ingredients. Like the more common sodium lauryl sulfate, this yellow detergent lends itself to cosmetics such as shampoo, makeup, hair color, soap, conditioner, toothpaste and mouthwash, among others. Virtually any cosmetic product in your medicine cabinet may contain SLES.
The Dioxane Factor
On its own, SLES may irritate the skin or eyes. Sometimes SLES becomes contaminated with the chemicals ethylene oxide and, most prominently, 1,4-dioxane during the manufacturing process. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, both of these chemicals are carcinogens and ethylene oxide may damage the nervous system. While cosmetic manufacturers can remove these carcinogens from SLES via a process known as vacuum stripping, unless you have a chemist handy, there's virtually no way of knowing if this process has been performed on your cosmetics.
What You Can Do
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics recommends choosing products certified by the USDA National Organic Program, as indicated on the label, to avoid 1,4-dioxane contamination. As always, the product's ingredient label is your best bet. Because it's difficult to determine whether or not SLES contains traces of 1,4-dioxane, avoiding products with the chemical serves as the safest option. Other potential carriers of 1,4-dioxane include PEG compounds or ingredients with the words “xynol,” “ceteareth” and “oleth.”
Approaching your cosmetic purchases on a case-by-case basis is the best way to make a safe choice. EPA-recommended websites such as GoodGuide and the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep provide detailed information and ratings for specific cosmetic ingredients and products based on factors such as environmental safety and personal health hazards in regards to potentially dangerous chemicals ingredients. For instance, both Skin Deep and GoodGuide note that SLES only raises a low level of health concern, but Skin Deep rates 1,4-dioxane 8 out of 10 for potential personal health hazards, with 10 being the most risky.