“Sodium Lauryl Sulfate from Coconut” – Is It Safer?

Skin Care

As a safe cosmetics advocate and founder of CV Skinlabs, I’m often asked about particular ingredients people find in their personal care products. One that has people especially confused lately is “sodium lauryl sulfate from coconut.”

Many of you already know that regular sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are harsh cleansers linked to skin irritation, allergic reactions, dermatitis, and dryness. Because consumers have become so savvy lately, cosmetics companies are trying to stay one step ahead of them without giving up their cheap, readily available ingredients.

So the latest technique is to try to get you to believe that SLS “from coconut” is natural and safe. Is this true?

What is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

Sodium lauryl sulfate and similar chemicals are surfactants—cleaning ingredients. If you want to get chemical about it, they’re the result of mixing lauryl alcohol with sulfuric acid, and then adding sodium carbonate. The resulting ingredient is used in carpet cleaners, engine degreasers, car wash liquids, and machine wash detergents because it’s highly corrosive and can remove oil and grease.

These ingredients are also used in a wide variety of personal care products, including soaps, shampoos, body washes, toothpastes, cleaning products, and anything else we like to “foam up.” They lower the surface tension of water and act as dispersal agents, helping to properly mix the ingredients in fragrance oils and body sprays. These properties also make these chemicals popular in moisturizing lotions and sunscreens.

The Difference Between Lauryl and Laureth

These are the two most common types that you’ll see in personal care and cleaning products. Both are irritating surfactants. The difference is in how they’re processed.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a good cleaning product, but is a skin irritant. It can cause damage to the outer layer of skin by disrupting the function of skin proteins and causing itchy, cracked, and dry skin. In shampoos, this ingredient can increase risk of scalp irritation, stinging eyes, and tangled, split, frizzy, and dull hair.

According to the Journal of the American College of Toxicology (1983, Vol. 2, No. 7) researchers noted, “The longer these ingredients stay in contact with the skin, the greater the likelihood of irritation, which may or may not be evident to the user.”

The study authors go on to note that sodium lauryl sulfate causes “severe epidermal changes” to the area of the skin where it was applied. They also said that the detergent tended to deposit heavily on the surface of hair follicles, and that, “damage to the hair follicle could result from such deposition.” Finally, they noted that 1–5 percent sodium lauryl sulfate produced “significant number of comedones,” which are, essentially, whiteheads or blackheads.

The researchers concluded that SLS “appears to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin. In products intended for prolonged contact with skin, concentrations should not exceed 1 percent.”

A Chemical Manufacturing Process

What about sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)? Though very similar to SLS, it is slightly different. It’s also a surfactant, and is used in products for the same reason that SLS is. It’s less irritating to skin and hair, however. Why? Because of how they process it.

To make SLES less irritating, manufacturers put it through a process called “ethoxylation.” (That’s why the “eth” in the name—any name that has “eth” has likely been ethoxylated.) Essentially, this means that they add ethylene oxide to the mixture to modify the chemical compound.

Ethylene oxide is a flammable, toxic gas used in the production of several industrial chemicals. According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), acute exposure can result in respiratory irritation, headaches, nausea, cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and sensitization.

Adding ethylene oxide to SLS, without getting into more complicated chemistry, reduces the irritation level of the ingredient. Many manufacturers use SLES rather than SLS for this reason—the ingredient is supposed to be gentler on the skin and hair. Because of this processing technique, however, SLES can be even more dangerous.

Why SLES Can Be Even Worse

Basically, adding ethylene oxide to make an ingredient milder is a cheap short cut used by companies to avoid paying for more natural, nourishing ingredients. The problem is that ethoxylation produces a chemical called “1,4-dioxane” as a byproduct.

1,4-dioxane is a known cancer causing agent and a leading groundwater contaminant, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It readily penetrates the skin, and is included on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known or suspected by the state to cause cancer or birth defects.

Of course, shampooing your hair once or twice will likely cause you no harm. The problem is, we use products with these ingredients several times a day, every day. Check your ingredient labels. You may be surprised at how many products contain SLS or SLES.

Where Do They Come From?

What if the label says the ingredient comes from coconut?

What they’re talking about here is where they’re getting the raw materials—in this case, the lauryl alcohol. Getting back to chemistry, SLS is synthesized in the lab by treating lauryl alcohol with sulfur trioxide gas or chlorosulfuric acid. Lauryl alcohol can come from petroleum, but it can also come from coconut oil. The oil is put through an elaborate process, however, that liberates the fatty acids, then hydrogenizes the oil, then pulls out the lauryl alcohol.

No matter where the alcohol comes from, it’s still mixed with the other chemicals to produce SLS or SLES or other forms of the ingredient. The result is still a chemical that is a long way from the original coconut oil. We may feel better having something that originated from coconut oil rather than from petroleum, but that doesn’t mean the chemical will not be irritating to skin or hair, or that it will not be contaminated from manufacturing processes.

How can we be sure of the extent of the contamination? We have no way of knowing. Companies can “vacuum-strip” ingredients to take the 1,4-dioxane out, but you won’t find anything on the label telling you whether or not they did that.

The whole “coconut-derived” or “from coconut oil” or whatever verbiage you see on the label is a marketing gimmick to make you believe that somehow the ingredient is more natural. Don’t fall for it! Choose instead products that have REAL natural ingredients rather than chemicals they’re trying to pass off as “more natural.”

What About Different Types of Sulfates?

As we were discussing this issue on our call, people started asking, “Well what about this x-y-z-sulfate, or this tri-something-di-sulfate?”

It’s true that there are many other sulfates out there used in personal care products. As the public grows wise to SLS and SLES, manufacturers are switching to other types, again, hoping to fool us into thinking they’re watching out for our safety.

Sodium lauryl sulfate is also called sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS). Sodium coco-sulfate is another very similar ingredient—the only difference is that instead of using just one lauryl alcohol to start with, they use a blend of fatty acids from coconut oil, react them with sulfuric acid, then sodium carbonate, to create sodium coco sulfate.

Other similar names include:

  1. Sodium caprylic sulfate
  2. Sodium capric sulfate
  3. Sodium oleic sulfate
  4. Sodium stearyl sulfate
  5. Sodium myreth sulfate
  6. Sodium dodecanesulfate
  7. Sodium monododecyl sulfate
  8. And more!

These are all named according to the particular isolated fatty acid used to start the chemical process in the first place.

Bottom Line

This is a lot of chemistry to get into over just one ingredient. What really matters is the manufacturer. Are they using cheap chemicals and trying to pass them off as natural, or are they using truly natural ingredients that you can actually pronounce?

Typically if you see one potentially harmful chemical like SLS or SLES, you’re going to see more, like formaldehyde-containing preservatives (ureas) and nitrosamine-forming agents (triethanolamine).

The key is not to think you have to become an expert at every chemical ever used in personal care products. Instead, find brands you trust. Find brands that have been conscious about safety from the beginning. Find brands that believe in using real natural ingredients. Buy from them, and forget about it!

Have you found sulfate-free formulas that you like? Please share!

  • Nancy

    There are so many recipes for homemade shampoo, deodorant, cleansers, toners, etc. using natural ingredients you’d find in your pantry. For the most part, there’s really not a need to use commercially produced products.

  • Mari

    What do you recommend for shampoo, body wash, laundry detergent?

  • SandyN

    I am allergic to many different chemicals in shampoos, lotions, really anything I put on my skin. I have been using Renpure shampoos (SLS- and SLES-free, paraben-free, and color and dye-free) and Burt’s Bees products for lotions and lipbalm/lip color.

  • Anonymous

    Mari, great resources for finding great, toxin-free products are:
    http://greenbeautyteam.com http://nomoredirtylooks.com

    Hope that helps!
    – Katrine

  • Anonymous

    Nancy, we’ve gathered a bunch of DIY beauty care recipes on Pintrest :)
    Take a look here: http://pinterest.com/drfranklipman/be-well-homemade/

    -Katrine, Be Well Team

  • Mina

    I just check the body shop coconut shower gel and it has SLS in it! I can’t believe it, which brands can we trust??!! The body shop prides itself on being ethical and using sustainable ethical ingredients and then they go and use SLS in their products!

  • Michele

    Yes the body shop is one of those fake natural brands, for the most part.

  • Lau

    I use Organix shampoo, and Jafra calming dynamics for skincare both, SLS- and SLES- free

  • Mish

    For certified organic products that do not contains these nasty chemicals Check out http://www.tamzaraorganics.miessence.com for wonderful certified organic skincare, hair care, oral care, health care and cosmetic products. Enjoy!

  • Vanessa Reckitt

    I’m allergic to coconut. . .if it doesn’t say “from coconut” on it, does that mean it’s coconut free?

  • Potassium Cocoate is a very good replacement for SLS and SLES. It is also very good rinsing properties, you dont need alot of water to rinse your shampoo or body wash. If you need sample please drop me e-mail at [email protected]

  • LoveChemistry

    You know that Organix shampoo is very bad for you… It actually has SLS/SLES….. Mom used to use it until I told her, so careful. Actually most of the shampoos that say they are natural, are actually not, Organix is one of the worst shampoos I’ve ever seen

  • LoveChemistry

    I just started reading about ingredients a couple of months ago. It’s very interesting but also scary at the same time. I love chemistry but to see how harmful ingredients on shampoos are is just bad. I really wish the companies will care one day.

  • Lvie

    Thank you for all the information, I am making my own soaps and lotions. Also i make Bath Bombs. In one recipe it mentioned to all SLS or SLES to make bombs more foamy, it did mention to use SLES because is was much safer. Why would this even be added to a recipe that is suppose to be all natural and safe?

  • Summer

    ORGANIC in skin care means that only 3% or more organic materials are in there….VERY deceptive…

  • Summer

    Burt’s Bees is now owned by CLOROX…be careful of a change in the future of their ingredients….

  • LoveChemistry

    I never said ORGANIC. I said the company Organix. I never even mentioned that I use an organic shampoo did I? You are not a good reader (no offense). Search up Organix Ingredients…. I don’t even get why you were saying that. What I was trying to say was Organix (the company) has shampoos that are very bad. They actually have SLS in them. I didn’t say that Organix is healthy. WEIRD!

  • Cindy

    We just took a trip to Whole Foods today and found that most of the 365 brand and Jason brand items are SLS free. And they smell good too! :)

  • Sondra

    Yes I have found an amazing line that is 100% pure and works great, Ava Anderson Non-Toxic. I have become a consultant for them because I love them so much. http://www.avaandersonnontoxic.com/sondrajay

  • Pisha

    I am a HUGE fan of PAI SKINCARE (pronounced “pie”) and 100 PERCENT PURE (100percentpure.com). After hours of research, they are the only companies I personally found so far that are 100% completely natural. 100 Percent Pure actually uses fruits/veggies to dye their makeups and all of their soaps and shampoos are 100% safe. Of course, both companies are much more expensive, but if it saves my skin from another epic breakout of perioral dermatitis, it’s totally worth it. I’ve also started using the most simple soaps (castile soap, raw African black soap) and using cold-pressed organic oils as moisturizers (coconut and jojoba are my favorites.)

  • Linda Johnson

    What blows me away is that our trusted government agencies have only just begun to test the 80,000 chemicals that were dumped UNTESTED into our society. How could anyhow in their right minds imagine this was safe & OK. Only those blinded by (or perhaps bribed by) big money, ya think!?

  • isit

    I’ve been using L’Oréal none sulfate shampoo for over 8 months. I have found my hair has become less thicker and large amounts of my hair has been falling out whilst washing. Is this common?

  • Kate

    The L’Oreal shampoo might not have “sulphate” in it, but you can be sure it’s got plenty of other nasties. They’ve probably replaced one well-known nasty with a lesser known nasty. L’Oreal’s products are full of chemicals and not worthy to be put on any body, in my humble opinion

  • Kimber

    This has been a learning journey for sure. About 8 years ago, I started using Young Living products. I use their toothpaste as there is NO sls of any kind. Same with their shampoos, lotions, deodorants,(they actually work on me) mouthwash. etc. All of these are infused with genuine essential oils. I will never go back to buying another health care product from the store again. I am also planning Make N Takes and DIY classes to make our own products using the essential oils.

  • Bart Rosen

    So many erroneous statements made here! I’m a retired chemist from the surfactant industry, and without boring everyone to tears, I can tell you that yes, virtually any surfactant left on the skin will irritate. But to say that Sodium laureth sulfate is sodium lauryl sulfate plus ethylene oxide is both false, misleading and asinine.

    Additionally, other types listed are NOT the same as sodium lauryl sulfate – they are differently chemically and are more, or less, irritating. I could go on and on but there’s little point.

    These surfactants have been used for 50 years in major brand shampoos, toothpastes, skin cleansers, etc. Have you heard that Herbal Essence Shampoo, Head and Shoulders Shampoo, Dove Shampoo, Oil of Olay Body Wash, Crest Toothpaste have been harming people?!!

    Gee wiz!

  • L.A.Rickman

    THIS is all new to me.
    I developed red dry flaky skin from my eyebrows, on my nose and chin. After I started using Redken shampoo. Not knowing abut SLS.
    Thought the Dove beauty bar for deep moisture
    & hidratacion would help.
    SLS is the first ingredient.
    Had to call an 800 number and beg for what was in it.
    They wouls not mail me any information.
    She finally did read the 17 ingredients to me.
    When I told her how bad a reaction I had.
    She insisted I answer questions to a form.
    I ask her to mail me the form.
    She was very curt with me , telling me I had to give her the information over the phone.
    I hung up.
    Well inform all my friends about SLS.

  • you’re brilliant

    This product seems like blatant false advertising after reading this article: http://www.sephora.com/pekee-bar-tm-P392248?skuId=1679281&icid2=brand%20content__p392248_image

  • you’re brilliant

    You should go to a derm. you might have dermatitis or perioral dermatitis if you have dry red flay skin around your mouth.

  • you’re brilliant

    Well, I supposed a chemist is not a fan of product liability?

  • kris

    I have been really sick after ingesting poison oak that was growing in my berry bushes….Now I get horribly ill if I come into contact with sls. I need to find a support group bc everyone, including dr.’s think I am crazy! Can anyone help me? [email protected]…..Really need some help, seriously!!! Thx

  • kris

    I use all SLS free products but they just changed the ingredients in my shampoo and I broke out in welts, hives…have acid reflux…..sooo, sooo sick….I found out it has to say ‘SLS FREE ON THE OUTSIDE OF THE PACKAGE’ or it isn’t. I am looking for a support system for people who may be as allergic as I am….Dr.’s look at me like I am crazy! Disruppted breathing, panic attacks, etc….CRAZY toxic stuff!

  • Ohmy Shrunkenhead

    Sound like a salicylate allergy. Also, the hypersensitivity reaction after a poisoning like you experienced can take a long time to clear, because the immune system is on high alert.

    Try sticking to very simple cleansers made with glucoside, not sulfates. Vitacost has good stuff- the Desert Essences brand is very cost effective and non-toxic. The Honest Company has a leave in spray conditioner (also sold on Vitacost) that shouldn’t irritate you, either. Don’t use any acne or exfoliating products for a while, six months or more. Rosewater or similar alcohol free flower distillates make a fine toner, and pure cold pressed sunflower or sweet almond oil are great facial moisturizers.

    I have lupus and went through a very severe reactivity period.

  • Ohmy Shrunkenhead

    Pai is overpriced but good. So is Eminence, and Hauschka. Weleda and Acure Organics make similar products for a bit less. Desert Essences is the economy version. I see a lot the castile black soap and shea products from Nubian Heritage, etc on Vitacost.

  • kris

    Thank you for responding,,,,been so miserable this summer…I am watching all my products really closely. Recently I had a questionable mammogram…going to Radiologist at Kaiser tomorrow….I think this has just affected m
    y whole body. I hope you are doing ok and I really appreciate your input!

  • Ohmy Shrunkenhead

    My mother currently has breast cancer. I truly hope you don’t. It may just be lymphatic inflammation from the reactions you’re having. Try to stay calm and not focus on the fear. Stress, poisoning, surgical anesthesia, viral infection, etc can provoke a massive sustained response.

    Food and chemical sensitivities are far more prevalent than anyone wants to admit. You were exposed to urushiol, the oily plant compound that causes allergic dermatitis, which does require elimination via the lymph nodes. It makes sense that harsh chemicals like benzene, benzoate, sulfate, nitrate and other cytotoxic preservatives would irritate you now. Things you consumed or came in contact with while dealing with the original exposure may be also mistaken as a threat. Compounds similar to what you ingested can cause a reaction, too, like oils that never bothered you before. It’s not that everything is terrible and the world is out to get you. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and hard to relax. Toxic stuff is bad regardless, but so are the stress chemicals from freaking out as you find more to worry about.

    Take care, try to get good sleep and find some pleasant distractions if possible. Anything to lower your stress level. Let me know how things go with the radiology, and if you have questions. I’ll help if I can.

  • kris

    I have been trying to find your post all morning but was looking on the wrong site. I really do have some specific questions for you about all this and your previous response….Is there any way you could call me or I you? Really depressed today and I am really confused….my mom had a double mastectomy….I just don’t know if it is really smart to have them do a biopsy right now….I really have no one to talk to because no one understands

  • kris

    I hope this is allowed on this site…303-989-1092 or [email protected] if that is better. Thank you Ohmy

  • kris

    Oops, replied to my own post….Is there any way I could talk to you on the phone? Scheduled for a biopsy next week but super stressed over some other life issues. I think I should postpone until I am calmer??? My phone # 303-989-1092 or [email protected] and you can give me your #?

  • kris

    That’s kind of funny because how long have people suffered from Psoriasis, Exzema, on and on and on….This toxic stuff is used to clean car engines and we scrub with it and put it in our mouths…REALLY?????

    It makes me seriously ill!!!

    Gee wiz!

  • Ohmy Shrunkenhead

    I emailed you. Delete that information before you’re overwhelmed with spam and stalkers.

  • kris

    Thank you…I do have a few short questions….could we possibly talk?

  • Ohmy Shrunkenhead

    If your gut was affected by what you ingested, it’s probably interfering with your serotonin production and triggering high cortisol levels. The stress makes it worse.

    I get the concern over the biopsy because it’s invasive, but if you keep the site clean and don’t draw your own attention to it, there shouldn’t be a problem healing– and you do need to know what’s going on…?

  • Ohmy Shrunkenhead

    If your gut was affected by what you ingested, it’s probably interfering with your serotonin production and triggering high cortisol levels. The stress makes it worse.

    I get the concern over the biopsy because it’s invasive, but if you keep the site clean and don’t draw your own attention to it, there shouldn’t be a problem healing– and you do need to know what’s going on…?

  • Marmot

    Hi all – I have a tube of Desert Essence Coconut Shampoo here in front
    of me and I see that one of its ingredients is sodium coco-sulfate, which is, I
    understand, another name for SLS. So, I’m afraid this brand is also
    misleading consumers since the label claims that this product is SLS-free.

    Also, I urge everyone to understand that chemicals are not inherently bad.
    EVERYTHING ON THE PLANET is made of chemicals. Many are naturally
    occurring and thousands more are synthetic. Almost every chemical can be deadly depending on concentration. I’m not suggesting SLS and the like aren’t problematic; I’m saying that, just because something is “natural”, this doesn’t mean it’s not bad for us or the environment that we dump
    our junk into.

  • shellos8

    Give me a break. Stop with all the scare tactics.

  • Szimi

    wait wait…I thought urea was a good ingredient! i don’t know what to believe anymore.

  • Christina Widencamp

    No, if it’s your gut then it’s from gas and you need to bend your knees in a 45 degree angle while standing and push and push hard. If you poke the anus while pushing it really helps a lot. Just have plenty of napkins to catch any poop flakes, or wet poop slime. You will feel much better.

  • Al

    It’s obvious you know nothing about Xenoestrogens and the havoc they are causing with the male gender.

  • Rogelio Eaters

    how about sodium trideceth sulfate?

  • Eleanor Young

    Johnsons baby seem to think they are good for the skin

    Hi Eleanor,

    I’m following up on your recent Facebook comment regarding the safety of the ingredients we use in our products. The health and well-being of your family is our top priority and we want you to have full peace of mind on this important issue, so we wanted to reassure you. Should you have any further questions that I can help with, I encourage you to reach out to us and I would be more than happy to try and address them.

    We know how important safety is to you and your family. We want you to know that all of our ingredients undergo rigorous quality testing and safety review to meet our strict standards to ensure they are safe to use, and of the highest quality. Parents have trusted our products for generations, and we take that trust seriously. The health and well-being of families is our top priority. If one of our products was not safe, we wouldn’t offer it.

    from the JOHNSON’S® Team

    We do not use Sodium Lauryl Sulfate in our JOHNSON’S® Baby products. Our cleansing products contain a blend of surfactants, including Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), which is proven to be mild and gentle for babies skin.

    We hope this additional information helps.

    from the JOHNSON’S® Team

  • thegoodbeautyco

    I agree, all the chemistry jargon can get a bit confusing, so it can be easier to look at the brand as a whole and their overall philosophy. Generally if they’re ethical in how they source ingredients, transparent about what’s in and not in their products and basically plant-based, cruelty-free and sustainable, then they’re a good bet. I know some amazing natural anti-ageing brands that use science to enhance results and that I would still deem completely safe and nourishing for the skin.

  • Rick Fernandes

    Anything mass produced is either cheap or generic. If you want the highest quality and potency- make it yourself. Centuries ago, that’s what people did.

  • Amy V

    Marmot, I have perioral dermatitis too. What do you do when you are out (work, restaurant, etc.) and have to wash your hands? I use all sulfate-free products at home but am fighting an uphill battle because of soaps used everywhere else. All I can think is to bring my own hand soap everywhere I go! Thankfully I can recover on the weekends so it never gets too bad but it would be nice if it would go away completely.

  • Musi

    I’ve started getting rashes on my scalp a few years ago after working at Lush where I was exposed to chemicals in an intense way (all their shampoos are full with SLS). It took me half a year to realize what the problem was that I am allergic to SLS and all other different sulfates. My skin was also very irritated and so dry even after moisturizing it that sometimes it was bleeding! After stopping to use shampoos and shower gels that contain these ingredients now I am totally free of irritated red skin and rashes that literally hurt before! So if anyone else has a similar problem I suggest to change the cleansing products overall. I’ve found Bentley organics and Khadi shampoos to work really well for example! Plus since then my hair grows twice as quickly!

  • Musi

    Coco-Glucoside works the best for me

  • Kant

    This is a wonderful and informative article. Now I understand what’s this SLS thing about. Thank you so much!