One of most overlooked causes of acne is hidden chemicals and toxins.
An unknowing acne patient can ingest hundreds of toxins daily, small amounts of each which accumulate and combine for a significant increase in inflammation. Such chemicals are a huge threat to both clear skin and glowing and vibrant skin.
Most importantly, these environmental toxins are hidden and underestimated, lurking under most acne patient’s noses.
There’s one chemical, however, which has roused the fury of the acne-clearing community: sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS. A cosmetics chemical found in shampoo, toothpaste, and shower gel, with proven irritating and pore-clogging properties.
What is sodium lauryl sulfate?
Sodium lauryl sulfate was originally derived from coconut flesh, but its days of healthiness are over. SLS is an industrial detergent and surfectant, an ingredient that strips away molecules like grease and allows products to interact more effectively with your hair, skin or gums. These properties make SLS ideal for industrial strength degreasers used on engines and heavy machinery. You can even buy raw sodium lauryl sulfate for degreasing your own car engine.
Most classically, SLS is 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 without this chemical. The lather has advantages other than being fun; 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 can be found far and wide: in toothpaste, shampoo, mouthwash, shower gel, facial cleansers, and most items that foam up.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is one of the most common additives in personal care items. Check your toothpaste right now and see. Note that sodium laureth sulfate is a different chemical, an easily confused one which nevertheless has similar properties.
Firstly, sodium lauryl sulfate is one of the most notoriously irritating ingredients found in cosmetics. Just an hour of exposure causes 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, destabilising and inflaming your skin’s tissues.
The villain is the surfectant properties, which strip away your skin’s healthy defences. Sodium lauryl sulfate is so notorious that it’s the gold standard chemical used to purposefully induce inflammation, in studies on anti-inflammatory remedies. The danger is two fold. SLS causes irritation itself, and the mere presence of such a harsh substance causes your body to unleash a strong inflammatory response against it.
The timespan is important, as shampoo flowing down your face for 60 seconds won’t expose your face to SLS for long. But 20 minutes 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 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 contact.
Has shampoo ever left your scalp red and inflamed? 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 why, combined with sodium fluoride.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is alkalising
SLS also has 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 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.
Then there’s a bonus problem of alkalinity – higher activity of proteases in the skin. Proteases are protein digesting enzymes, which are healthy and natural but in excess, able to cause low collagen levels. With too many proteases breaking down collagen, your acne will never heal properly. You’ll also develop weak skin and age prematurely.
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 most feared danger of sodium lauryl sulfate is its pore-clogging powers. After applying a foaming cleanser containing SLS, your skin will initially feel clean, rubbery and what many call squeaky. This cleanliness comes from the surfectant properties stripping away your skin’s oils without mercy.
SLS is designed to remove oils, being added to washing up liquid and degreasers. SLS doesn’t differentiate between a plate of recently eaten steak or the sebum on your face; it strips away any oils in its path.
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 being a chemical, not an oil. That’s higher than its official irritating score of 2.
SLS is even known to increase the quantity of sebocytes, sebum producing cells in your skin. This may be another compensatory response to the drying properties.
Additionally, 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 known to increase trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). Sodium lauryl sulfate dries out your skin not only by stripping the fats, but also by weakening your skin’s ability to retain moisture.
Interestingly, SLS is proven to be 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 weakens the skin barrier. Many people speak of using shampoo for months with no irritation, but suddenly developing a sodium lauryl sulfate sensitivity. This is a common story with sodium lauryl sulfate, and cumulative damage is almost certainly why. SLS will continuously weaken your skin until the dam finally breaks and irritation finally kicks in.
The detrimental effects of sodium lauryl sulfate go far beyond basic contact irritation.
Are there any internal dangers?
What about oral SLS? What happens when sodium lauryl sulfate enters your bloodstream?
SLS in toothpaste can penetrate the membranes in your mouth and of course, you could accidentally swallow it. Sodium lauryl sulfate can also be absorbed transdermally, through the skin and into blood vessels.
What’s mysterious compared to mercury or fluoride is whether SLS is deadly inside the body. There’s a serious lack of evidence on common chemical dangers behind acne like increasing inflammation and generating free radicals. SLS has been tested far more in topical studies, because of being in cosmetics.
SLS is often contaminated with 1,4 Dioxine, a carcinogen, and nitrosamines, which generate free radicals once inside the body. However, this contamination isn’t an epidemic. The hardcore anti-SLS zealots out there even claim that SLS causes cancer when the evidence is pretty flimsy…
…but 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 is glutathione depletion. Glutathione is one of the master antioxidants for acne, manufactured in your cells using a combination of cysteine, glycine and selenium. However, there’s also a detoxification form called glutathione-s-transferase, used to metabolise a variety of toxins such as mercury, fluoride, and BPA.
Most importantly, glutathione-s-transferase is built using the same ingredients as the antioxidant form. If your body is being exposed to artificial chemicals and contaminants constantly, your GST stocks will decline, and with it the supplies for one of the most important acne-clearing substances. If their detoxification pathway relies on GST, chemicals which aren’t proven to be deadly can still cause acne.
The question is therefore whether SLS is one of them. This study confirmed that applying SLS to a patch of skin slowly depleted 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 sodium lauryl sulfate.
Glutathione depletion is one of the most overlooked dangers of environmental chemicals. 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 indirect glutathione depletion is rarely considered.
For acne, glutathione depletion is one of the best 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, there’s automatically a high chance that the immune system attacks ingested SLS with a pro-inflammatory response anyway.
The real reason to go natural
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. Just last week, a study discovered that 72% of UK tap water samples contained tiny beads of plastic. Among 14 countries including the UK, US, Germany, France and Indonesia, the rate was 83%.
The danger of plastic is chiefly the inflammatory phthalates 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).
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 everywhere in the 21st century – particularly breast cancer, dementia, low testosterone, and of course, adult acne. The same people scratching their heads are the ones mumbling that chemical tap water is nothing to worry about.
When SLS is so easy to avoid, you should always seize the opportunity.
Your sodium lauryl sulfate master plan
Luckily, the opportunity is very easy to seize. Sodium lauryl sulfate cannot run and it cannot hide, for it is always given away by lather, foam and bubbles. Learn these tricks and wave goodbye to SLS forever:
Learn these alternative names – 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 – a recently introduced coconut form used in organic skincare products, which is claimed to be healthy, but 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 at the 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 fat is 50% lauric acid, but also contains 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 terminate the SLS, remembering the new names.
Get an acne-friendly toothpaste – the toothpaste I 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 (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, 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.
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 Dr Bronner’s leaves your hair weirdly soft, softer than the chemical shampoos with billions of dollars of research poured into them. Again, there’s no SLS or harsh fillers. Amazon link here: Dr. Bronner’s Pure Liquid Castile Soap.
Just as benzoyl peroxide or honey cannot cure your acne alone, so too is sodium lauryl sulfate incapable of causing it.
What sodium lauryl sulfate can do is irritate your skin and inflame existing acne. SLS damages your skin in numerous ways: skin barrier function, sebum production, skin PH, and moisture loss.
Inside your body, there’s a high chance that sodium lauryl sulfate can deplete glutathione levels. There’s no need to use sodium lauryl sulfate anyway. It literally leaves a trail of foam and bubbles wherever it steps and is easy to put to rest.
You might be angry or scared at first to know how chemicals like this are infesting society, but you should always see it as an opportunity. With thousands of chemicals lurking out there, you have thousands of new ways to improve your skin.
The same applies to your diet. You might be horrified to discover 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!