Sodium laureth sulfate is often referred to as SLES, but it can also go by several other names as noted in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Household Products Database and the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database.
What Is Sodium Laureth Sulfate?
Sodium laureth sulfate is a white (sometimes yellowish) paste or liquid that's used as a detergent and surfactant in many personal care and cleaning products because of it's a very effective foaming agent.
Common Synonyms: CAS# 009004-82-4; Laureth-8 carboxylic acid, sodium salt; PEG-(5,7,8, or 12) lauryl ether sulfate, sodium salt; Polyethylene glycol (5, 7, 12, 400, or 600) lauryl ether sulfate, sodium salt; Sodium dodecylpoly(oxyethylene)sulfate; Sodium laureth-(5,7,8, or 12) sulfate; Sodium lauryl ether sulfate; Sodium lauryl sulfate ethoxylate; Sodium polyoxyethylene lauryl ether sulfate
Chemical Formula: CH3(CH2)10CH2(OCH2CH2)2OSO3Na
Note: Sodium laureth sulfate is not to be confused with sodium lauryl sulfate. The two are distinct chemicals. However, sodium laureth sulfate is often made from sodium lauryl sulfate.
How It Works
Sodium laureth sulfate works well as a foamer, cleaner, and degreaser. So, if you are using a product that produces lots of suds, bubbles, or foam, it may very well contain SLES.
Sodium laureth sulfate is often used in laundry and hand dishwashing detergents. In addition, it can be found in cleansers, carpet cleaners, toilet cleaning products, stain and odor removers, all-purpose cleaners, etc.
To see specific products that may contain it, try searching the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Household Products Database, the Environmental Working Group's "Guide to Healthy Cleaning," or the Good Guide. Also, don't assume that just because a product is "green" or eco-friendly that it doesn't contain it. For example, Simple Green Naturals Dish Washing Liquid uses it.
Sodium laureth sulfate isn't just limited to cleaning uses, it can also be found in plenty of personal care products, such as shampoos, facial cleansers, make-up removers, soaps, body washes, bubble baths, and even toothpaste! Check the Good Guide or the Environmental Working Groups Skin Deep Cosmetic Database for cosmetic products that may contain it. Seriously consider the health and safety effects of sodium laureth sulfate before using products with them.
When sodium laureth sulfate is used in personal care products, it is monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For cleaning uses, it is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Health and Safety
According to the Environmental Working Group, sodium laureth sulfate can be an irritant to the skin, eyes, and lungs.
Depending on how it is manufactured, it may also contain other chemicals with unfavorable health effects. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics explains that sodium lauryl sulfate is often converted to the gentler sodium laureth sulfate through a manufacturing process that may result in 1,4 dioxane, which is a probable human carcinogen. Ethylene oxide is another possible byproduct of the manufacturing process and is considered a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.What is especially concerning is that neither 1,4 dioxane nor ethylene oxide appears on ingredient labels because they are not technically product ingredients.
Aside from the health and safety effects noted above, environmental data is lacking.
There are plenty of products on the market that don't contain sodium laureth sulfate and do just as good of a job cleaning. You may not see as much foam or that many suds, but that doesn't mean you're not getting the job done! Be sure to read product labels carefully because even some products that are marketed as green or all natural, may contain it.