SLS – don’t buy into the hype

14 November 2017

With the ever-increasing uptake towards using natural and organic skincare, it seems as if everywhere you turn, you are bombarded with messaging about what ingredients you can and can’t use.

Some ingredients are touted as being ‘toxic’ for your body and  being blamed for causing everything from hormonal imbalances to cancer.

One particular ingredient that constantly gets a bad rap is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), but with the plethora of information out there, how are you supposed to know what is real and what is fabricated?

While we can’t tell you what to believe, we can present you with the facts and the research, and then you can make up your own mind.

Let’s get one thing straight

Anyone who chooses to put out any claims about SLS should consult the science, thoroughly research the topic, and present balanced reliable information to the public.

Our view on SLS (and also what we use, Sodium LAURETH Sulfate, SLES,  because it’s been unfairly dragged into the debate as well) is based on that of our founder – David Lyons, a Naturopath and Herbalist with 33 years’ experience, as well as seven years’ experience in the treatment of cancer at the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

David achieved his qualifications through years of university work and subsequent years of well-rounded research work.

What is SLS and is it toxic? 

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and its relative, Sodium Laureth Sulfate are foaming agents and detergents that are the most widely used cleansers in the world. There are millions of applications of SLS per day.

SLS is more commonly used than SLES - because it is cheaper to produce,

Despite irresponsible internet claims, there isn’t any science or published studies to support ‘toxic’ claims about these ingredients.

Claims that such ingredients are ‘irritant’ or ‘toxic’ are unscientific.

The central compound from which SLS was first made was originally discovered in Laurel leaves (the Laurel Wreath was worn around the heads of Roman Emperors). The name 'laurel' is where the lauryl comes from in Sodium Laurel Sulphate.  It's also called Bay Leaf.

SLS and SLES are recognised the world over, not just as cosmetic ingredients, but also as pharmaceutical quality ingredients.

And the research says…

It’s a simple fact that every substance used in every skin care range in the western world is approved by teams of internationally-recognised government scientists. If some people have information that suggests otherwise they need to publish a scientific paper quoting their properly controlled studies.

The safety of SLS and SLES is clear: in Australia, the National Industrial Chemicals & Notification Assessment Scheme responded to various website/newsletter/blogger claims that SLS and related compounds were in some way hazardous to humans by simply stating that:

  • SLS (and similar compounds) are not listed in the schedule published by the National Drugs and Poisons Committee.
  • SLS is not listed by the National Occupational Health & Safety Commission as a designated hazardous substance and as such is not a compound to be avoided.
  • The FDA also says that SLS is safe. The FDA says that there were just 18 complaints in between 1976 to 1983 relating to irritation reactions of SLS shampoos. This was out of an estimated total of 400 million applications of SLS shampoos over that period. Neither were any 'cancers' attributed to SLS.
  • The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation & Development), the FDA, and the CTFA (Cosmetics Toiletries & Fragrances Assn) have published the following information in scientific literature: SLS does not sensitize the skin. Also, an OECD report concluded that the substance is of no concern to the general public, or consumers, or for workers.

“It’s a simple choice, believe the extensive science, or believe fragmented internet information”.

One frequently quoted reference attributed to the Journal of the American College of Toxicology states that SLS cause eye or skin irritation. In fact the wording of that same reference states the picture far more clearly…’the ingredients have been shown to produce eye and/or skin irritation in some human test subjects; irritation may occur in some users.

  • On the basis of available information, the Panel concluded that Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate are safe as presently used in cosmetic products.
  • And that Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate appear to be safe in (wash off) formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use..”

Let’s put ‘irritation may occur’ in context.

The Workplace Australia's criterion for a substance to be irritating is, ‘If AFTER FOUR HOURS of skin contact, irritation develops.’  SLS (and SLES) are used in wash-off products so how can this statement from this website be relevant?  By the same four-hour contact standard, onion juice, beetroot juice, lemon juice, hot tea, and red wine are 'irritating.

One 'SLS negative' website notes, in typical piece-meal fashion, that 'SLS is an irritancy standard against which other compounds are compared'.  That’s wrong, and as usual it’s out of context…it's one little part of a whole paragraph that tells a very different story.

In fact:

  • SLS is used in challenge tests to compare other compounds. SLS does not sensitise the skin, otherwise it would not be used in this way - because of the risk of cross-sensitization nullifying the study. 

Far-fetched claims that these compounds enter the blood stream cannot be supported by properly controlled clinical studies.  

How did this whole rumour about SLS being toxic even start?

As the Snopes website that researches urban legends says: “Back in the 1970s some shampoos were found to be contaminated with small amounts of nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. Ethanolamine Lauryl Sulfates used in these shampoos were found to be the source of the nitrosamine contamination and manufacturers took corrective action. Perhaps someone confused Ethanolamine Lauryl Sulfate with Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Or, since the “SLS is dangerous” message has been widely disseminated by sellers of “alternative” or “all natural” products who tout that their wares don’t contain SLS, perhaps someone in the “natural products” business deliberately created the message as a way of drumming up sales.”

Many ‘organic’ websites use out of context information to scare consumers to their website. This is nothing more than shameful exploitation of the consumer. Some defenders of the unscientific and the irrational like to refer to the EWG website. It’s worth noting that the EWG website is not seen within the scientific community as a peer-reviewed reference source”.

The EWG website is not seen within the scientific community as a peer-reviewed reference source”.

Quantity matters – the dose makes the poison

Comments that SLS can cause severe epidermal changes to the area where it is applied that, theoretically, could increase the chances of cancer' is unscientific. Many compounds at high concentrations can cause 'severe epidermal changes', for example table salt applied directly to wet skin, onion juice left on the skin, and of course, sun exposure.

'The facts are, that unless you can swallow your weight in skin care cream or cleanser in one go, there are no ‘dangerous’ chemicals in even the worst skin care ranges.'

Instead, there are plenty of useless, lifeless fillers used - and ingredients added just to be able to make a label claim about a ‘hero’ ingredient.

“Remember, everything has a ‘toxic’ dose, even water!”

  • Vitamin D in human blood is 5 times more toxic than nicotine. Yet no-one dies from the vitamin D in their blood stream.
  • Sunshine has the same carcinogenic status as alcohol, antibiotics, and wild ginger.
  • Potassium chloride is a mineral salt and one of the best soothing throat lozenges available. It’s also the final, sole compound given in lethal injections. It instantly stops the heart.
  • Vanilla beans contain Acetaldehyde (a Group 1 carcinogen), Hydroxybenzaldehyde, and Isobutyric acid.
  • The essential oils of Rosewood, Basil, Patchouli, and Rose petals contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs can cause headaches, fatigue and/or dizziness, and possibly CNS damage. But no one is harmed by exposure to these essential oils because it’s all about the dose and the duration.
  • Cinnamon and lemon essential oil contain aldehydes. Aldehydes are also classed as Volatile Organic Compounds.
  • Geraniol found in the essential oils of rose, palmarosa, citronella, geranium, and lemon is classified as D2B (toxic materials causing other effects). Geraniol is considered a severe eye (and moderate skin) irritant. Again, the usual exposure doses are of no concern.

Where we stand on SLS and SLES

While Simplicité is a natural skincare brand that uses organic and high quality ingredients, we aren’t going to jump on the bandwagon of labelling ingredients that are deemed to be safe, as toxic.

Simplicité products that require a foaming agent contain Sodium LAURETH Sulphate (SLeS) which is extracted from the flesh of coconuts (sustainably harvested). We use the highest quality available (it’s available in at least seven grades).

We would never use any ingredient that is sourced from petrochemicals, including SLES.

We use premium quality SLES because we know it is safe, gentle and effective, even on sensitive skin. 

We won’t use the commonly used ‘natural’ alternatives to SLES.

These include Decyl Glucoside, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate and Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate.

We won’t use these because they are cheaper and are usually made in a Sulphuric Acid reaction and then neutralised with Sodium Hydroxide, which reacts with the natural sebum in skin and can clog pores.

Quality of ingredients matters

We are passionate about the quality of our herbs and ingredients - nutritive, soothing, antioxidant-rich, healing and protective ingredients made from organically-grown, highly-active plants. But equally, we are just as passionate about the ingredients we don’t use. The fact of the matter is, if it was toxic, we wouldn’t be using it, just like the hundreds of ingredients you will never ever see on the labels on the back of our products.

In the interest of balance, we suggest to consumers that when checking the ingredients list on a skin care product container, to pay attention to the beginning of the list - if there aren’t twelve or so nutritive, healing, plant extracts listed on the container towards the top of the ingredients list, don’t waste your money.

If you’re keen to read more about the research around SLS, view the resources and studies below.


Here is just one of the many freely-available research papers available on SLS. This is from the US National Library of Medicine and the associated National Institutes of Health.








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