2D structural formula of Sodium laureth sulfate


What is it?

“Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), an accepted contraction of sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES). SLES is prepared by ethoxylation of dodecyl alcohol and has the chemical formula is CH3(CH2)11(OCH2CH2)nOSO3Na.” Wikipedia

What are the effects?

This substance belongs to the groups:

Sodium laureth sulfate is on the Red List from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (previously the Breast Cancer Fund). From manufacture, SLES may be contaminated with the toxic substances ethylene oxide and 1,4- dioxane.

To make sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) less irritating, ethylene oxide is added (ethoxylation), writes the David Suzuki Foundation. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) then becomes sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). But another issue occurs instead because during the ethoxylation, contamination from 1,4-dioxane could occur. Even organic dish soaps have been found to have contamination from 1,4.dioxane.

It is likely that this substance is derived from palm oil.


Even though it is not listed on the ingredient labels, products with sodium laureth sulfate may also contain impurities from:

  • 1,4- dioxane – linked to cancer
  • Ethylene oxide – linked to cancer, organ system toxicity, genetic defects and irritation
  • Palm oil – linked to environmental destruction

How is it used?

Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is used as a surfactant-cleansing agent and surfactant-solubilising agent in cosmetic products*. It is found in products such as shampoos, body washes, facial cleansers, conditioners, mascaras, exfoliates, baby shampoos, shaving creams and makeup removers.

Products containing sulfates are known to be effective cosmetic cleansers. Some warn that they are in fact too effective, not only removing dirt but also stripping body, scalp and hair of its natural essential oils. Sulfates can make skin and hair dry, and also strip colored hair of its color faster.

We use the European Commissions definition of Cosmetics:
“Cosmetics range from everyday hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste to luxury beauty items including perfumes and makeup”.

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