On this website, we’ve previously discussed how hidden chemicals and toxins are one of most overlooked causes of acne.
An unknowing acne patient can ingest small amounts of these substances every day, small amounts which are nevertheless enough to accumulate and increase inflammation. These chemicals are a hidden but significant and underestimated threat to both clear skin and healthy and glowing skin. Many are targeted by the wider natural health community as well…
…but there’s one chemical which has particularly roused the fury of the acne-clearing community: sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS. A chemical found in shampoos, toothpaste, and shower gel.
SLS is found in products which are directly applied to the skin, leading to many acne patients questioning this chemical. If you have done the same, you were right, because sodium lauryl sulfate’s irritating and pore-clogging powers are proven.
What is sodium lauryl sulfate?
Sodium lauryl sulfate was originally derived from coconut flesh, but it’s now a pure industrial chemical, far removed from this healthy origin.
SLS is a detergent and surfectant, an ingredient that reduces surface tension, strips away molecules, and allows products to interact more effectively with your hair, skin or gums. These degreasing properties make SLS ideal for industrial strength degreasers used on engines and heavy machinery. You can even buy sodium lauryl sulfate as a raw material on amazon for greasing your own car engine.
It’s also a strong lathering agent; sodium lauryl sulfate is the reason for the white foaminess of countless products you’ve used during your life. Toothpaste and shampoo would not foam and bubble up if it wasn’t for sodium lauryl sulfate. The lather has other advantages too; the big bubbles penetrate effectively between the teeth, to spread the enamelising agents like fluoride into every corner.
Since this chemical is dirt cheap, SLS is the ingredient of choice for lather and surfectant properties. It can be found far and wide: toothpaste, shampoo, mouthwash, shower gel, facial cleansers, and most items that foam up all contain sodium lauryl sulfate.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is one of the most common additives in personal care items – check your toothpaste right now. Note that sodium laureth sulfate is a different chemical, an easily confused one which nevertheless has similar properties.
By far the biggest problem of sodium lauryl sulfate is its notorious irritating properties. When applied to the skin, sodium lauryl sulfate is one of the most strongly irritating ingredients found in cosmetics. Leaving sodium lauryl sulfate on the surface of your skin for just an hour causes the cells to die, cracks to form in the skin, and irritation to be born.
The causes are simple: SLS is a protein denaturer. It attacks the cell membrane of skin cells, causing inflammation and destabilisation of skin tissues. This is largely thanks to its surfectant properties, stripping away at cells’ healthy defences.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is so proven to cause irritation that it’s the gold standard chemical used to purposefully induce inflammation, in experiments where scientists are testing a topical treatment for its ability to reduce inflammation. The danger is two fold. On top of its own irritation, the mere presence of such a harsh substance causes your body to unleash a strong inflammatory response against it.
A key factor is the timespan of application. Wash your hair, and the shampoo flowing down your face for 60 seconds won’t expose your face to SLS for long. But 20 minutes to an hour of application of tiny shampoo residue is enough for the irritation to begin. What’s more, what seem like individual short, safe sessions can lead to sodium lauryl sulfate accumulating over the course of many weeks, and with it the irritation.
Women are known to be more sensitive to SLS then men. Individual men and women can be more sensitive than average too, and experience contact dermatitis immediately. However, everybody is in danger from regular usage.
Has shampoo ever left your scalp red and inflamed after weeks of usage? Sodium lauryl sulfate and its frothiness is the culprit. Have you ever noticed that toothpaste inflames your gums rather than leaving them a healthy pink colour? Sodium lauryl sulfate is the reason why, in combination with sodium fluoride.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is alkalising
The basic irritating properties of sodium lauryl sulfate have been widely known for years, but there’s also more complex and subtle dangers.
Firstly, sodium lauryl sulfate is an alkaline chemical, proven to increase your skin’s PH. The skin’s optimal PH ranges from 4.5 to 5.5, with kids having a higher PH to keep more infections away while their immune systems develop. Excess alkalinity allows bacteria such as p.acnes to thrive, irritate your skin, and cause even more acne.
Irritation is bad for your skin tone (and painful), and will inflame existing acne, but the PH of sodium lauryl sulfate will actually help to make new pimples. SLS won’t increase your skin’s alkalinity after a single shampoo wash, but with consistent use, it easily can.
A bonus problem of alkalinity relates to collagen – higher PHs increase the activity of proteases in the skin. Proteases are protein digesting enzymes, which are healthy and natural but in excess, able to break down collagen and damage your skin’s structure, as well as accelerate ageing. Proteases also assist with the healing of wounds, including acne, but a fine balance is essential. With too many proteases breaking down fresh tissue, your acne will never heal properly.
In the skin, protease activity peaks at PHs of around 7-8, with activity curtailed at healthy PHs of 5.5. SLS is easily capable of bringing your skin to this danger zone.
Not just an irritant!
The second best known danger of sodium lauryl sulfate is its pore-clogging powers, even though SLS is a chemical and not an oil.
After applying a foaming cleanser containing SLS, your skin will first feel clean, rubbery and what many call squeaky. This cleanliness comes from the surfectant properties stripping away your skin’s oils without mercy.
To compensate, your sebaceous glands pump out more oil, meaning that the drying properties backfire massively. Sodium lauryl sulfate has a comedogenic rating of 5 out of 5, despite not being an oil. That’s actually higher than its official irritating score of 2. SLS is a detergent, designed to remove oils, being added to washing up liquid for that reason. SLS doesn’t differentiate between coconut oil on a plate of recently eaten steak or the sebum on your face; it strips away all oils in its path. Your natural sebum production is the first line of defence against this.
SLS is even known to increase the quantity of sebocytes, sebum producing cells, in your skin. This too may be a compensatory response to the drying properties.
Then there’s damage to the skin barrier. Fats are very important to the function of your skin barrier, being used to make ceramides and other structural compounds. Because of this, SLS is also known to increase trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). Effectively, sodium lauryl sulfate dries out your skin not just by stripping the fats, but also by weakening your skin’s ability to retain moisture.
What’s also interesting is that SLS is proven to be much more irritating in people whose skin is already compromised, including people with atopic dermatitis and weakened skin barrier function. Clear-skinned people might breath a sigh of relief, but SLS itself is proven to weak the skin barrier. So what you have is a cumulative effect, with SLS weakening and weakening your skin until the dam finally breaks and irritation finally kicks in.
Many people on the internet speak of using shampoo for months with no irritation, but suddenly developing a sodium lauryl sulfate sensitivity, or allergy. This is a common story with sodium lauryl sulfate and the cumulative damage is almost certainly why.
These bonus powers will lead to extra irritation themselves, but what you need to know is this: the detrimental effects of sodium lauryl sulfate go beyond basic contact irritation.
Are there any internal dangers?
What about oral SLS? What happens when you accidentally swallow sodium lauryl sulfate while brushing your teeth, allowing the chemical to enter your bloodstream? Or when you absorb it?
It’s known that sodium lauryl sulfate can be absorbed transdermally, through the skin and into blood vessels. It’s known that SLS in toothpaste can penetrate the membranes in your mouth and enter the blood.
What’s less known compared to mercury, fluoride or phthalates is whether SLS is deadly in the bloodstream. There’s a serious lack of evidence on its internal effects. Common chemical dangers behind acne like increasing inflammation, generating free radicals, and increasing insulin resistance are unproven. SLS has been tested far more in topical studies, because of being in cosmetics.
SLS is often contaminated with 1,4 Dioxine, a carcinogen. The manufacturing process can produce nitrosamines as well, mutated forms of nitrates like those used to make ham and bacon, which generate free radicals once inside the body. However, this contamination isn’t really an epidemic. There’s many hardcore anti-SLS zealots out there, who even claim that it causes cancer when the evidence is pretty flimsy…
…but the truth is, they didn’t need to exaggerate anything, because sodium lauryl sulfate’s known effects are already a threat.
For acne, one of the biggest problems with any artificial chemical, pro-inflammatory in the bloodstream or not, is that it depletes your glutathione supplies. Glutathione is one of the master antioxidants for acne, manufactured in your liver and cells using a combination of cysteine, glycine and selenium. However, glutathione also has a detoxification form called glutathione-s-transferase. GST is used in stage 1 metabolisation of a variety of chemicals and heavy metals, such as mercury, fluoride, and BPA.
The problem for acne? Glutathione-s-transferase is built using the same ingredients as the antioxidant form. If your body is being pumped with artificial chemicals and environmental contaminants constantly, your GST stocks will decline, and with it the supplies for one of the most important acne-clearing substances.
Whether the chemical is deadly itself is irrelevant – what matters is its detoxification pathway. Many chemicals which aren’t proven to be pure evil like BPA can still deplete your glutathione stocks.
The pertinent question is therefore whether SLS is detoxified using glutathione-s-transferase. This study confirmed that applying SLS to a patch of skin began to deplete GST levels. There was no change after 6 hours, but after 48 hours, the decline in glutathione-s-transferase became significant, suggesting that GST is indeed involved with the detoxification pathway of SLS.
Glutathione depletion is one of the most overlooked dangers of environmental chemicals. Chemicals that seem relatively safe can still deplete your antioxidant supplies through this indirect mechanism, very likely including SLS. This one of the main reasons I advise you to minimise as many chemical ingredients as you can.
Other detoxification pathways exist, like the P450 enzyme which metabolises caffeine. But while not all contaminating chemicals have been tested, from what I’ve seen well over half are detoxified by GST. Many people deem certain chemicals to be safe because no pro-inflammatory or antioxidant-depleting side effects have been proven, but depletion of glutathione’s ingredients is a mechanism that very few consider.
For acne, glutathione depletion is one of the biggest reasons to avoid as many chemical filled cosmetics, non-organic fruits and vegetables (apples, celery) and personal care items as you can, including those with sodium lauryl sulfate.
Given how strongly it irritates the skin, and given how it’s an artificial chemical, there’s automatically a high chance that the immune system attacks SLS with a pro-inflammatory response anyway.
The true natural philosophy
What’s more, there’s so many other chemicals lurking today that it’s a lost opportunity not to eliminate the ones which you do know about. For example, just last week, a study discovered that 72% of UK tap water samples contained tiny beads of plastic. Among 14 countries all over the world, including the UK, US, Germany, France and Indonesia, the rate was 83%.
The danger of plastic is chiefly the inflammatory phthalate chemicals they contain, but the bigger danger is the implication of what other contaminants might be hiding. This applies to tap water, cosmetics, shampoo, agricultural crops and more. Fragrances in fabric softeners and perfumes don’t even have to be listed in the United States, much less the mutant volatile compounds they create (see the pillowcase article).
Given how many new chemicals and new acne-causing powers are being revealed constantly, it’s always smart to eliminate the sources we do know about, including sodium lauryl sulfate.
A bunch of people insist that this is paranoia, but if you’re going to be paranoid about one phenomenon, environmental chemicals are an excellent candidate. There’s so many diseases which are more rampant than ever in the 21st century – particularly breast cancer, dementia, low testosterone, and of course, adult acne. The same people scratching their heads and wondering why they’ve exploded are the same people who mumble that chemical tap water is nothing to worry about.
When SLS is so easy to avoid, compared to who knows what else which exists, you should always seize the opportunity.
Your sodium lauryl sulfate master plan
Make no mistake that the opportunity is very easy to seize. Sodium lauryl sulfate cannot run and it cannot hide, for it is always given away by its traditional usage: lather, foam and bubbles. Learn these tricks and wave goodbye to SLS forever:
Learn these ingredient names – for each one is an alternative name of sodium lauryl sulfate. The negative reputation of sodium lauryl sulfate has spread widely and manufacturers are desperate to hide it. Over 100 different names are used. Some are ridiculously obvious, but some are sneakier.
The most common names are: olefin sulfate, sodium dodecyl sulphate (SDS), dodecyl sodium sulfate; lauryl sodium sulfate (how lazy can you get!), lauryl sulfate sodium salt, sodium n-dodecyl sulfate, sulfuric acid monododecyl ester sodium salt, and sodium dodecane sulfate. Sodium laureth sulfate is a different chemical, but I would avoid this too, because it’s also highly irritating.
Avoid sodium coco sulfate – this recently introduced form deserves special mention. Many organic skincare products are including sodium coco sulfate, supposedly reflecting on the health concerns and wisely introducing a healthier version derived from the coconut where SLS was originally derived from.
Don’t be fooled! There’s little difference to SLS in the health effects. Sodium coco sulfate is the definition of a marketing gimmick.
The only difference is that the fatty acids used at the very beginning of the harsh manufacturing process are derived from coconuts. Ordinarily, isolated lauric acid is used to make SLS, being treated with chlorosulfonic acid among other steps. With sodium coco sulfate, a blend of all the fatty acids from coconut is used.
Coconut flesh contains mostly lauric acid, at 50%, but also other fatty acids like myristic acid and palmitic acid. Sodium coco sulfate ends up with some other sulfates of fatty acids in the mix, but it’s still treated with harsh acids and still becomes a synthetic chemical. Most importantly, sodium coco sulfate still predominantly consists of sodium lauryl sulfate.
With regular sodium lauryl sulfate, you might also see “derived from coconuts”. This means that the initial lauric acid (AKA, the “lauryl” part) was derived from coconut, which makes no difference to the properties and safety for acne.
Be suspicious of lather – bubbles and foam does not confirm harsh chemicals, but it’s a warning sign. A few natural products like Dr Bronner’s castille soap lather up slightly, but rarely to the same extent as SLS-fests. Check the ingredients, and proceed to identify and terminate the SLS, remembering the new names.
Get an acne-friendly toothpaste – the toothpaste I always recommend is a simple combination of baking soda and extra virgin coconut oil. Baking soda is proven to be antibacterial, in addition to alkaline, which deactivates the acids in your mouth. Coconut oil is also antibacterial due to its 50% content of lauric acid. Melt the coconut oil with gentle heat (you’ll be doing this every day and need to avoid turning the oil rancid) and combine the two into a paste for a mindlessly easy homemade trick.
Recently, however, a bunch of organic toothpastes have materialised. Dr Bronner’s sells a peppermint flavoured one, which consists of numerous natural antibacterial ingredients, actually including coconut oil and baking soda. There is no SLS, no harsh fillers to speak of, and definitely no sodium fluoride. Amazon link here: Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps Toothpaste (Peppermint).
Get an acne-friendly shampoo, liquid hand wash, shower gel – for all those products, I use small amounts of Dr Bronner’s liquid castille soap. They work so well that I’ve never seen the need for anything else. As a shampoo, it leaves your hair weirdly soft. actually softer than the chemical shampoos with billions of dollars of research poured into them.
Since people’s hair differs, and Dr Bronner’s occasionally irritates people, you might desire something different. The world of organic shampoos is wide and I’m no expert on them, but this is my favourite. Again, there’s no SLS or harsh fillers. Amazon link here: Dr. Bronner’s Pure Liquid Castile Soap.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is almost certainly not causing your acne. Just as benzoyl peroxide or honey cannot cure your acne, so too are toothpaste and shampoo incapable of creating it.
What sodium lauryl sulfate can do is irritate your skin and worsen the key factors behind acne. These include but are not limited to skin barrier function, sebum production, skin PH, and moisture loss.
As an internal acne villain, BPA, fluoride and arsenic are far deadlier. But there’s a high chance that accidentally ingesting sodium lauryl sulfate, which is almost inevitable, can deplete your glutathione levels.
Last but not least, there’s no need to use sodium lauryl sulfate anyway. Sodium lauryl sulfate literally leaves a trail of foam and bubbles wherever it steps and is easy to put to rest.
Regarding all chemicals and heavy metals, whether it’s SLS or mercury, you might be angry or scared at first to know how they’re infesting society. However, you should always see it as an opportunity. With thousands of chemicals lurking out there, you literally have thousands of new ways to improve your skin
The same applies to your diet or lifestyle. You might be angry or horrified to find out that unbeknown to you, you’re really eating 200 grams of sugar per day. In reality, it should be the best news you’ve heard all week; fresh room for improvement has opened up. Always remember that opportunities are everywhere.
Thanks for reading!