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There’s literally no way we can keep up with all the different chemicals that make up our household and personal care products.

But we can educate ourselves about the ingredients that may have the potential to irritate our skin, cause allergic reactions or lead to even worse health-related problems.

What are SLS and SLES?

SLS stands for sodium lauryl sulfate. SLES stands for sodium laureth sulfate. Both are classified as surfactants, substances that can reduce the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved and create a lather.

SLS is a synthetic substance made from petroleum, although it can also be made using coconut or palm oils.

SLES is derived from ethoxylated lauryl alcohol and, while the milder of the two, may be contaminated with potentially toxic manufacturing impurities such as 1,4-dioxane.

A baby boy soaks in a tub full of bubbles]

SLS and SLES are what put the bubbles in bubble bath

How Are They Used?

SLS and SLES are commonly found in shampoo, body wash, shaving cream, toothpaste, laundry soap and industrial cleaning products. 

They are favored for their cleansing and foaming ability, including emulsifying oils so that they can be easily rinsed away.

How much SLS or SLES is in products varies by type and manufacturer. 

According to an American study by Seventh Generation and the University of Washington, concentrations range from 0.01% to 50% in cosmetics products and 1 to 30% in cleaning products.

The authors of the study found that SLS concentrations of more than 2% are considered irritating to normal skin while SLS as a standalone ingredient is toxic to rats.

What are household cleansers doing to your family’s skin? Read How Cleaning Products Could Trigger Your Child’s Eczema.

Are They Harmful?

The EWG classifies SLS as a low overall hazard, depending on its use. Primary concerns are the potential for irritation to the skin, eyes and lungs.

Children in particular are susceptible to eye irritation and poor eye development with prolonged exposure. 

SLS has also been reported to accumulate in the heart, liver, lungs and brain with continued use.

Despite rumors to the contrary, however, there has been no scientific evidence that links SLS and the development of cancer.

Most experts consider concentrations of around 1% to be safe, although even trace amounts could cause irritation for some people (including those with eczema or other existing conditions).

While it acts as a milder cleanser compared to SLS, SLES is classified as a moderate overall hazard. 

This is primarily due to contamination concerns with 1,4-dioxane, a suspected carcinogen. 

It is produced when SLS is converted to SLES, and is considered unsuitable for use by pregnant women or infants and children.

Infants’ delicate skin may be more susceptible to irritation from cleaning products

How Do I Safeguard My Family?

While SLS and SLES can be found in all manner of household and personal care products, there are ways you can minimize your family’s exposure. 

Begin by scrutinizing product labels, keeping in mind that ingredients are listed in descending order of amount.

There is also a growing range of SLS- and SLES-free products, many of which are labeled as such. 

Bear in mind that the physical performance may differ from what you are used to with conventional products—especially when it comes to foaming—but they are generally no less effective at cleaning.

You can even consider making your own natural cleaning and skincare products. 

In the end, it comes down to determining what’s best for you and your family’s needs.