Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: What It Is, How It's Used, and Alternatives

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What exactly is sodium lauryl sulfate? It is a white or cream colored crystal, flake, or powder primarily used as a surfactant, emulsifier, foamer, dispersant, or wetting agent in many industries, such as cleaning and personal care.

Other Names

Sodium lauryl sulfate is often referred to as SLS, 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 National Library of Medicine's Hazardous Substances Data Bank.

Common Synonyms and Trade Names: Aquarex ME; Aquarex Methyl; Carsonol SLS; Dehydrag Sulfate GL Emulsion; Dodecyl Alcohol, Hydrogen Sulfate, Sodium Salt; Dodecyl Sulfate, Sodium Salt; Dodecyl Sodium Sulfate; Dreft; Duponal; Duponal WAQE; Duponol C; Duponol ME; Duponol WA; Duponol WAQ; Emal 10; Irium; Lanette Wax-S; Lauryl Sodium Sulfate; Lauryl Sulfate Sodium Salt; Maprofix 563; Maprofix NEU; Maprofix WAC; Maprofix WAC-LA; Monogen Y 100; NCI-C50191; Neutrazyme; Orvus WA Paste; Perklankrol ESD 60; Perlankroll; Quolac EX-UB; SDS; Sipex OP; Sipon PD; Sipon WD; Sodium Dodecylsulfate;  Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Ether; Sodium N-Dodecylsulfate; Solsol Needles; Sepanol T 28; Stepanol ME; Stepanol ME Dry AW; Stepanol Methyl; Stepanol Methyl Dry AW; Sulfuric Acid, Monododecylester, Sodium Salt; Tarapon K 12; Texapon K 12; Trepenol WA: 000151-21-3

Chemical Formula: C12-H26-O4-S.Na

Note: Sodium lauryl sulfate is not to be confused with sodium laureth sulfate. The two are distinct chemicals. However, sodium laureth sulfate is often made from sodium lauryl sulfate.

Cleaning Uses

Sodium lauryl sulfate is used in a range of household and car cleaning products due to its ability to produce foam, cut through grease, and suspend soil particles so that they can easily be washed away. For household use, it can be found in dishwashing liquids, carpet cleaners, toilet cleaning products, tub & tile cleaners, stain & odor removers, all-purpose cleaners, laundry detergents, shower cleaners, glass cleaners, and more. In terms of car cleaning, you may find it in car washes and upholstery cleaners.

Other Uses

Sodium lauryl sulfate isn't just limited to cleaning uses; it can also be found in a multitude of other industries. It's used in personal care products, such as toothpaste, hand soap, shaving cream, facial cleansers, body washes, shampoos, conditioners, and hair coloring products. In addition, it is even used in pet care products, like pet shampoos. Not only that, but SLS has even been used as a food additive! The FDA allows it to be used in fresh fruit coatings, egg white emulsifications, marshmallow making, and "fumaric acid-aciduated" beverage bases as noted in Title 21, Part 172 of the Code of Federal Regulations. It is also approved by the FDA as an indirect food additive when preparing "components of resinous and polymeric coatings" (Title 21, Part 175).

Product Brands Containing Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

To see if certain products contain sodium lauryl sulfate, try searching the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Household Products Database, the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning, the Good Guide, or the EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database

Regulation

When sodium lauryl sulfate is used in pharmaceutical preparations, personal care products, or as a food additive, it is monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For cleaning and industrial uses, it is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Health & Safety

As noted in a series of 1970s peer-reviewed studies listed in the National Library of Medicine's Hazardous Substances Database, SLS has been found to be irritating to the skin and eyes and can even produce allergic reactions. In response to these problems with SLS, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an independent organization that reviews the safety of ingredients, stated in a press document that SLS posed less of a hazard in rinse-off formulations, but should be used in concentrations less than 1 percent for leave-on products.

Environmental Effects

SLS is not expected to bioaccumulate or persist in the environment, which is a good thing, but it is known to be toxic to aquatic organisms as noted in the International Chemical Safety Card (ICSC) Database. So, considering it's getting rinsed down our drains from several personal care and cleaning products we use every day all over the world, this is something to consider.

Green Alternatives

Manufacturers have become savvy to the fact that consumers are wary of having sulfates in their products, so many have developed alternatives. For example, Tom's of Maine uses glycyrrhizic acid, which is derived from licorice, in its SLS-free toothpaste instead of SLS. When it comes to green cleaning products, seek manufacturers who leave it out or simply try your hand at some DIY recipes. You may not see as much foam, but that doesn't mean they won't work!