Are Your Suds Safe? Alternatives to SLS and SLES

What the heck are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)?

SLS and SLES are chemical surfactants that cut through dirt and grease by generating copious amounts of lather. They’re used as foaming agents in everyday products such as cosmetics and cleaners, and they can be very irritating to the skin, eyes and lungs. Some products you’ll find them in include toothpaste, facial cleanser, dish detergent and laundry soap. SLS and SLES are commonly made from plant-based oils such as palm and coconut, however they can also be petroleum-derived.

Their manufacturing process produces the toxic byproduct 1,4-dioxane, The International Agency for Research on Cancer, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the EPA all consider 1,4-dioxane to range from a possible to likely human carcinogen.

SLS and SLES in body care products work by emulsifying, or “getting under” dirt and oil on our skin so that it can be easily rinsed away. The skin is our body’s largest organ with an average size of two square metres. It acts as both a physical and chemical barrier. The chemical barrier is in the form of our skin’s acid mantle. The acid mantle is a thin, slightly acidic film that is formed by a mixture of sebum, secreted by our sebaceous glands, and sweat. This layer is further acidified by naturally occurring “good” bacteria. The finished product is our body’s first line of defense against bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. The acid mantle also protects our skin from becoming dehydrated. Unfortunately SLS and SLES completely strip our skin of this protective barrier!

SLS and SLES are both readily biodegradable and there is no indication that they pose any specific environmental threat, HOWEVER, the bigger issue lies with the products used in their manufacturing. The ethylene oxide used to turn SLS to SLES is distilled from crude oil, a non-renewable resource. The lauryl alcohol used to make SLS and SLES is typically petroleum-derived, or can also come from palm or coconut oil. Don’t be fooled by claims that vegetable-derived surfactants are better than their petroleum-based counterparts. The finished product bears absolutely no resemblance to the original plant, and there are huge environmental and social impacts of palm and coconut oil plantations.

Vast areas of tropical forests are constantly being cleared to accommodate these huge monocrop plantations. This destroys habitat for many already endangered species including orangutans, tigers and rhinoceros. There are also social impacts when new oil palm plantations are created. They can destroy the livelihoods of communities, who are often not even consulted about the new plantations. In some cases these massive monocrops even displace forest-dwelling people.

So What Can You Do?

One of the first steps in avoiding these chemicals is ditching the idea that every cleaning product, be it for your body or home, has to whip up into an instant lather. What if shampoo simply coated your hair and rinsed away without a single bubble? Or toothpaste didn’t leave you with a mouth full of suds? We’ve likely been conditioned since childhood to think that we’re not clean unless we’re “squeaky” clean.

Our body works hard to produce protective oils and other barriers, yet we happily watch them swirl down the drain in a heap of suds. This is often counter productive because now our oil glands go into overdrive to replace what’s been lost. Excessively washing ourselves can actually make us feel oilier and dirtier in the long run.

If you can’t ditch the lather altogether, opt for good old fashioned soap. Soap has been around for thousands of years, while chemical surfactants have been with us for less than a century. Soap is made by mixing oils with either sodium hydroxide for solid soap, or potassium hydroxide for liquid soap. This process is simple and efficient and produces no by-products. Soap is free of artificial foaming agents, harsh cleansers, deconstructed fatty acids, petrochemicals and chemical anti-bacterial agents. It’s also biodegradable. As with anything though, check the label carefully… soap should not have more than a few ingredients, with possibly some essential oils for fragrance.

Castile soap is a great option that can be used for almost all household and personal cleaning needs. Its name comes from a region in Spain called Castile, known for its olive oil. Historically castile soap was made from olive oil and animal fat, however it’s most commonly made today using vegetable oils such as coconut, hemp, jojoba, olive and palm… Wait, didn’t we decide that palm oil is a bad thing?? Not necessarily. Large scale palm oil plantations run by big corporations are generally bad news, however, some companies are taking steps to only support small, family-owned, organic farms.

Dr. Bronner’s, for instance, uses palm oil in its bar soaps. They have partnered with 300 small organic farms in eastern Ghana. They support the farms with organic inputs and training on organic agriculture. The intent is to help farmers increase soil fertility, productivity and thus long-term profitability of their farms. They maintain control of the social and environmental impacts of their palm oil to make sure everyone along the supply chain is treated fairly. Their entire supply chain is also certified organic and fair trade. Their goal is to demonstrate that one can produce any crop, and the products made from them, sustainably.

If You’re Willing To Skip The Suds…

There are some great options for cleaning your body and hair with no lather whatsoever! Skin can be massaged with an organic oil and rinsed clean with cool water. Jojoba oil is fantastic for this because it most closely resembles our skin’s own natural oil. If your skin is oily or prone to breakouts and the thought of rubbing pure oil into it makes you cringe (I’m with you there), try this recipe for oilier skin types. In a bowl mix ½ cup rolled oats, ¼ cup lemon juice, ¼ cup water and ½ tablespoon honey. Combine all ingredients, massage onto skin for 30 seconds and rinse with lukewarm water, then pat dry. The remaining mixture can be stored in the fridge. Lemon acts as an astringent as well as a disinfectant, killing bacteria that may cause breakouts, oatmeal gently exfoliates the skin and absorbs excess oil, and honey balances out any dryness that may be caused by the lemon.

For a foam-free shampoo try this insanely easy and inexpensive method. Add two tablespoons of baking soda to a small bowl and take it in the shower with you. Add a few drops of water, stir with your fingers to make a paste, work it into your hair, then rinse. If there’s any leftover it will store indefinitely. For a simple conditioner combine ¼ cup apple cider vinegar with 16 cups water, pour the mixture through hair after shampooing and rinse with cool water. The remaining mixture will easily store for six months or more. A few drops of essential oil can be added to the conditioning rinse for fragrance. For specific scalp issues such as dandruff, tea tree and rosemary essential oils can be useful.

A Cleaner Approach To Laundry

Most conventional, natural and even organic laundry soaps still contain chemical surfactants. One simple approach is to try organic soap nuts! Soap nuts are not actually nuts at all, but rather a fruit. They grow on trees in Nepal and India and are a natural, biodegradable and petroleum-free laundry soap alternative. They are sometimes sold as soapberries. They contain large amounts of saponins in their shells. Saponins are a natural surfactant (as opposed to chemical surfactants such as SLS and SLES). To use soap nuts, place four or five of them in a small cloth bag. Add the bag to a load of dirty laundry and wash as usual. You can reuse the soap nuts about three times. They are available in health food stores, organic grocery stores and online. Another laundry alternative is a wall-mounted ozone laundry system such as this.

Baby Steps = Big Changes!

Hopefully this has helped you become more informed about the chemicals encountered in daily life. As with anything, making too many changes at once can be overwhelming, but baby steps in the right direction will have a huge impact on you, your family and the environment before you know it! I’d love to hear about your favourite alternatives to conventional products in the comments below!

Robyn Barber, CNP

Robyn Barber, CNP

Robyn is a recent graduate of the Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Vancouver, BC. She’s passionate about connecting people with a simple lifestyle through amazing food, natural therapies and self-love. She loves spending time in her garden planting fruits and veggies, and in her kitchen creating new recipes. She lives in beautiful Abbotsford, BC with her boyfriend and three adopted dogs.
Robyn Barber, CNP

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About The Author

Robyn Barber, CNP

Robyn is a recent graduate of the Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Vancouver, BC. She’s passionate about connecting people with a simple lifestyle through amazing food, natural therapies and self-love. She loves spending time in her garden planting fruits and veggies, and in her kitchen creating new recipes. She lives in beautiful Abbotsford, BC with her boyfriend and three adopted dogs.

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