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Why You Should Avoid Sodium Laureth Sulfate in Skincare (and Everywhere!)

Why You Should Avoid Sodium Laureth Sulfate in Skincare (and Everywhere!)

Updated April 2023

You might remember beauty guru Jonathan Van Ness saying sodium lauryl sulfate is “the same thing that cleans the car engine in a car.” But even the biggest JVN fan might not know about sodium laureth sulfate—a similar, and equally troubling, ingredient.

No matter if you’re a beauty aficionado or exploring skincare for beginners, knowing what’s in your products, why they’re there, and how they help (or don’t) is key to creating a healthy and beneficial routine. So what is sodium laureth sulfate? How is it related to sodium lauryl sulfate? What are sodium laureth sulfate skincare products? And how easy is it to find clean skincare products that don’t use it?

What is sodium laureth sulfate? 

Let’s start by understanding more about this compound with such a complex name. Besides sounding like a very obscure band name, what is sodium laureth sulfate?

This chemical compound is a detergent found in a myriad of consumer products, including dish soap, and is frequently found in skincare and other personal items. Sodium laureth sulfate, also called SLES, is made from coconut oil or palm kernel oil, both of which undergo a heavy extraction and chemical conversion process.

Because sodium laureth sulfate is an inexpensive way to make lathery suds, you’ll typically find it used as a foaming and cleansing agent in many face and body washes. Companies often use SLES as an emulsifier to help smoothly blend ingredients that wouldn’t otherwise get along; help products stay shelf-stable for longer; and keep products from separating. SLES can sometimes be contaminated by a toxin called 1,4-dioxane, which manufacturers are encouraged to monitor but are unfortunately not required to remove.

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Sodium laureth sulfate vs sodium lauryl sulfate

Both sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate make foam, are found in beauty and personal care items, and start with sodium and end in sulfate. The difference between the two has to do with how they’re processed and the resulting chemical reaction: SLES undergoes one extra step, called ethoxylation, which is not a yoga breath but is instead where the “E” gets added in sodium laureth sulfate’s acronym.

Sodium lauryl sulfate, often shortened to SLS, can bind with molecules and stay on the skin for longer, which can cause problems. Unlike Cousin Lauryl, sodium laureth sulfate is considered to be slightly less irritating to the skin because it washes away easier without leaving behind as many potentially damaging particles. Because they also strip oils, both sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate are sometimes used in products designed to remove stubborn makeup.

But, just because it’s less irritating doesn’t mean sodium laureth sulfate doesn’t irritate at all. Products with SLES are incredibly drying. Those with sensitive skin or with dermatological concerns like eczema and rosacea should avoid sodium laureth sulfate and any of the other names SLES tries to use to sneak into the self-care club.

Sulfate bubbles

Other names for sodium laureth sulfate

Does sodium laureth sulfate have more aliases than a mobster’s criminal rap sheet? Oh yeah. And there are so many sodium laureth sulfate skincare products that use all sorts of different names for the chemical.

First, SLES is short for sodium lauryl ether sulfate. It’s also called sodium alkyl ether sulfate, lauryl ether sulfate sodium, and a whole host of hyphenated names, like alpha-sulfo-omega-(dodecyloxy)poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl). Whew. Let’s catch our breath.

According to the EPA, among others, there are a number of names under which sodium laureth sulfate might be listed, including:

  • 2-(Dodecyloxy)ethyl sodium sulfate
  • 2-(Dodecyloxy)ethanol hydrogen sulfate sodium salt
  •, sodium salt
  • alpha-sulfo-omega-(dodecyloxy)poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl)
  • alpha-Sulfo-omega-(dodecyloxy)poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl), Sodium salt
  • Dodecyl sodium ethoxysulfate
  • Ethanol, 2-(dodecyloxy)-, hydrogen sulfate, sodium salt
  • Ethanol, 2-(dodecyloxy)-, 1-(hydrogen sulfate), sodium salt (1:1)
  • Glycols, polyethylene, mono(hydrogen sulfate), dodecyl ether, sodium salt
  • lauryl ether sulfate sodium
  • poly (oxy-1,2-ethanediyl)
  • poly (oxy-1,2 ethanediyl), A-sulfo-W (dodecyloxy)-, sodium salt
  • poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl),, sodium salt
  • poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl),, sodium salt (1:1)
  • Polyethylene glycol (#600) lauryl ether sulfate, sodium salt
  • polyoxyethylene (1,4) lauryl ether sulfate, sodium salt

The craziest part? This isn’t even all the names! But we think you get the idea. 

Is sodium laureth sulfate bad for skin? 

Good question. Technically, it depends on your skin. As we’ve mentioned, anyone with sensitive skin, rosacea, or eczema should not use products that contain sodium laureth sulfate.

Generally speaking, if you’re unsure if sodium laureth sulfate will bother you, it’s a better idea to avoid products with SLES because it can cause moisture loss, irritation, and dry skin. Also, you should never allow any products containing sodium laureth sulfate to stay on your skin for long and should always rinse them off immediately.

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Does sodium laureth sulfate cause acne? 

The connection between sodium laureth sulfate and acne can be a bit complicated. Sodium laureth sulfate can cause dry skin. Dryness can send the skin into overdrive and pump up the production of oil. And that, in turn, can cause acne. This is one vicious cycle it’s best to avoid! The good news is that it’s easier than ever to find natural face moisturizers that don’t include SLES or other compounds that aggravate dryness.

Is sodium laureth sulfate bad for hair? 

When added to shampoos, sodium laureth sulfate has deep-cleaning properties. But again, it’s best to wash it off your skin, and, yes, hair, as quickly as possible. Sodium laureth sulfate can cause issues for the skin around the forehead, ears, neck, and back: aka, where skin comes most directly into contact with hair products.

But the problems are more than skin-deep. If you have gorgeous curls or bodacious beachy waves, sodium laureth sulfate is not something you’ll want to use. Remember that SLES strips oil in face and body products, which is exactly what it does to hair, too. And, bummer: that can cause frizz. 

Is your hair fine or prone to dryness? You should say “No, no, no” to sodium laureth sulfate! No need to further dry out your strands.

Is sodium laureth sulfate safe for keratin-treated hair?

This one is easy: Nope.

Because sodium laureth sulfate pulls oil out of hair, it impacts the ability of the keratin protein to remain bound to hair. This is another factor that causes frizz, and getting rid of frizz is basically the point of keratin treatments. So, make sure you don’t undo the powers of keratin by using SLES!

Wavy hair

Is sodium laureth sulfate in face wash? 

Oh yeah. Sodium laureth sulfate is what makes that drugstore face wash lather up and bubble like a can of shaken soda. SLES might be used less frequently in vegan facewashes, but it is technically plant-based so be sure to scrutinize those labels!

Does Kinder Beauty use sodium laureth sulfate? 

Kinder Beauty does not use SLES by any name, nor SLS either, in any products we sell in our marketplace or our monthly boxes. We proudly follow specific and easy-to-understand clean beauty standards.

Sodium laureth sulfate in cosmetics

Because sodium laureth sulfate helps ingredients emulsify and stay together, the chemical is used in cosmetics like mascaras, liquid eyeliner, brow gels, and primers. Considering sodium laureth sulfate has also been shown to cause eye irritation, this is all the more reason to opt for clean beauty products to keep yourself safe.

Final thoughts

Oof. There’s a lot to unpack here, especially with all of sodium laureth sulfate’s many names, acronyms, and similar-sounding substances.

Aside from looking up every ingredient or getting an advanced chemistry degree, how can you have a better idea of what’s in the products you use? We try to take the guesswork out by making shopping for clean beauty products an easy and, dare we say, pleasant experience.
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Sodium lauryl ether sulfate | Environmental Protection Agency

Sodium 2-(dodecyloxy)ethyl sulphate | National Center for Biotechnological Information 

Leah M. Charney is sassy yet classy and is always seeking a beauty routine to match. She delights in both the science and aesthetics of the clean beauty movement.

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