Shampoo Surfactants – Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
I’m starting with our Phique ingredient explanations with the most villified ingredient that we use. A shampoo surfactant called Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). This falls under the dreaded “sulfate” category. I’ve seen the bad press and it’s everything from it’s going to give you cancer to it’s going to make your color fade quicker. The data cited by many of these fear-mongering sites has been de-bunked, and most of their claims are just outright wrong. Your skin is a barrier and most products can’t even penetrate that barrier because they are too big. Shampoo surfactants like SLS have been used safely for years in your toothpaste, where you actually ingest small amounts, with no adverse effects.
Safety of surfactants
Let’s start with the cancer claim. Does it cause cancer? According to the American Cancer Society, no. In this time of fake news, it’s hard to know whether your sources are telling you the truth. The American Cancer Society is at the forefront of research as to what causes cancer and how to treat it. Don’t believe a source, especially if they are trying to sell you something that doesn’t contain sulfate.
One example of misleading science is Mercola. They make the following statement: “SLS has also been linked to nitrosamines, potent carcinogens that cause your body to absorb nitrate, which are known to be carcinogenic as well.” This is ridiculous because SLS doesn’t contain any nitrogen, which is needed to make a NITROsamine. I’ll try not to get too into the weeds of chemistry, but a basic understanding would make your BS detector go off immediately.
The other claim is it causes irritation. There is some merit to this claim, but when mixed with the rest of the ingredients in the formula, the entire formula is mild enough to not cause irritation. The NIH talks about SLS irritation here. If you don’t want to read the whole article, here’s the upshot: “Cleaning products that contain SLS have the potential to be dermal irritants if not formulated properly, but products that contain SLS are not necessarily irritating to the skin.”
Phique products, as well as other products are formulated with co-surfactants that mitigate the irritation potential and are perfectly safe. In fact, we test products on ourselves before launching them to make sure there are no adverse reactions. Not everyone’s skin is the same, but most of the time the thing people are sensitized to are the fragrance, not the surfactants. I’ll talk more about fragrance issues in future posts.
Is performance a problem?
The reason we and many other companies use sulfates is performance. Nothing foams better, builds viscosity, and is less expensive than SLS. Companies that refuse to use SLS simply don’t reach the performance of a product that includes SLS.
How do we know this?
We’ve tested literally hundreds of products on a blind basis with consumers and the ones that lose are the ones without SLS. We’ve already received dozens of comments about how great our foam is in our shampoo. One of the major reasons is SLS. It’s the workhorse that makes it work. There are some tricks to making the foam feel luxurious as well, and I’ll get to those in a later post. Sheer foam volume though is due to SLS.
Color fading shampoo surfactants?
Another negative out there is SLS makes your color fade. This is total nonsense. Both Perry and I have spent years researching color fade and you’ll never guess the number one contributor to color loss. Water. It’s plain and simple, if you want to keep your color longer, don’t wash your hair as much. We ran experiments with just about every popular formula on the market, as well as straight SLS. Our “control” was water. That means we used water as the thing that we compared everything else to. And to our surprise, the hair that was just treated with water always lost the most color, meaning anything you add to water actually *improves* your color. How about that?
Next post will be about another of our shampoo surfactants, SLES, which is very similar to SLS. If you’d like, leave in the comments any “natural” sites you believe to have a case against SLS and we’ll de-bunk their junk science and give you the straight dope.
Excellent post, thanks for this info. Ages ago when I was in high school I had a physics teacher who claimed that the Germans invented SLS during WWII when there was a soap shortage. I have no idea how we ended up on the topic, but do you know if this is actually true?
That’s a great question Christopher. I kind of knew the answer but had to also find some texts as well to confirm. It was actually invented pre-WWII, in 1930 by a German company Boehme Fett Chemie. It is correct it was invented because people were worried about a shortage of fat that was used to make soap. They found the way to create a fatty alcohol through hydrogenation, which made SLS possible.
One story I heard about it when it was first invented is they dumped a lot of it in a pond where some geese were swimming and killed them because it wet their feathers and they sank. I don’t know if it’s true or not but it’s a funny story and I’ve heard it from more than one surfactant guru over the years.
Thanks for looking into that! Who knew a high school physics teacher could know so much as surfactants. Looking back on it he did have really good hair…
Wow! I like the confidence in your tone as I read this.
I started avoiding sls because my toothpaste (colgate) which has sls dried out my lips BADLY. I wonder how, colgate, the world’s top brand in oral care, don’t know how to ‘properly formulate’ products?