Monday, August 8, 2011

SLS vs... SLS?

Looking at the websites of a couple of skin care companies today, I noticed that both of them mentioned that they one, don't use surfactants, and two, stay away from anything with the words "lauryl" or "laureth" in it (Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, etc). The thought came to me that these statements could mislead some who had never heard the terms... So, having done a mind-boggling amount of research on these terms, I thought I'd post a few links and give some information to help arm you when reading the label of that soap/shampoo/bath bomb/toothpaste etc. Please see the links below to do more research on your own. :-)

First of all... are all surfactants bad in skin care products?
In a word, no- the dictionary simply defines "surfactant" this way: "A substance that tends to reduce the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved". Basically defined (for skin care product use, specifically), a surfactant (technically called a surface active agent) is a substance that one, contributes to emulsifying the product, two, helps whatever you're putting on your skin or hair to glide on smoothly by reducing surface tension between the product and your skin, or three, promotes lathering. That definition could have a wide range of meanings- for example, in lotion, you will often see the ingredients "cetyl alcohol" or "cetearyl alcohol"- this fatty alcohol is often used in the emulsifying wax that makes lotions stable blends of oil and water, yet it is classified as a surfactant, and is also classified as being not toxic or harmful in skincare products.

That being said... are all surfactants created equal?
Again, no. A big no! Take, for instance, the difference between one group of ingredients- as mentioned earlier, Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, and Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, to name a few. I will leave the main explanation to Michelle of Pegasus Soaps (I have to give her full credit for reassuring me with her blog post when I started soapmaking that I wasn't going to be causing my family/friends/customers to get some horrible disease because I used a foaming agent), but here is a list of the basic differences between these seemingly similar ingredients...

Two of these, Sodium Laureth Sulfate (what most people are referring to when they say SLS), and Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (also sometimes referred to as SLS, but also commonly referred to as SLeS) are:
1. Not derived from 'natural' sources (like coconut oil, etc)
2. Can be irritating to the skin

And although these are pretty hard to avoid (go grab your generic body wash/shampoo and read the ingredients), many people are learning the difference between the more natural and the lab-created and trying their best to stay away from the latter.

Now, let's take a quick look at Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate:
1. Derived naturally from coconut or palm oil
2. Safe and not toxic for use on the skin
3. Does not irritate sensitive skin

Big difference, isn't it? Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate (sometimes also called SLS, now it's called SLSa more often than not) creates a wonderfully rich lather without the concerns, but it should not be confused with SLS or SLeS I have used SLSA ever since I started making yogurt soap (dairy in soap cuts down on the lather, unfortunately) and I have had people with very sensitive skin use the soap with no bad effects. The soap rinses cleanly and doesn't strip the skin. The best news is that there are also many other natural, non-irritating surfactants that make natural bubble bath, body wash, and gentle cleansers! (See Susan Barclay-Nichols' handy chart below.)

Well, I hope that if you're buying or making bath products you'll take the time to read the labels and do some more in-depth research on what you're using. Can't hurt anything, can it? ;-)

Michelle of Pegasus Soaps' original post
Wiki article on "surfactants"

See also: Susan Barclay-Nichols' ( Surfactant chart and Formulating With Surfactants
Incredibly informative!


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