What are sulphates? Have you ever noticed your shampoo tingles a lot more than the conditioner? This is because the shampoo has sulphates in it. Sulphates are also present in other cleaning agents. Sulphates are used as cleaning agent for laundry products. Some examples of sulphates which could be included in household cleaning products include: sodium lauryl sulphate; sodium laureth sulphate; ammonium lauryl sulphate, and ammonium laureth sulphate. Sulphates are added to give the product a smooth feel when used. They are harsh on your skin and can cause a variety of problems. The name sulphate refers to the sulfuric acid compound that is used to produce the detergent. Sulphates are not just one common compound; instead, there are many variations that have been given different names.
Common products that have sulphates
You can find sulphate compounds like SLS and SLES in a variety of home care and personal care products like:
- Laundry detergent
- Dish detergent
- Liquid hand soap
- Face cleansers
- Bath bombs
Why are sulphates used?
Sulphates are a family of chemicals used in everything from cosmetics to industrial strength detergents. The most common is sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), which is used in many soaps, shampoos, detergents and toothpastes. Sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) is another relative that provides the same cleaning properties without being quite as irritating to the skin. Sulphates are a chemically active surfactant that can break down oils and effectively remove dirt and debris from your hair and skin.
Are sulphates necessary?
Many people wonder if sulphates are necessary? The answer is no. Sulphates are chemical additives that allow for the formation of suds or bubbles in detergents and soaps. But do we really need bubbles to clean?
Sulphates aren’t used only in cleaning products. They are often used in personal care products as well, such as shampoos and body washes. In fact, they are the most commonly used lathering agents in the world.
Surfactants, which include sulphates and their gentler counterparts called sulfosuccinates, are what clean our clothes, dishes, and bodies when we wash them with soap or detergent. They’re also responsible for the lather we love so much when we wash our hair or lather up in the shower.
While surfactants make it easier to both remove dirt and grime from surfaces and rinse them away, they can also strip away natural oils that protect our skin from drying out. That’s why you’ve probably noticed that some soaps don’t work well on certain types of clothing or leave your skin feeling dry after you shower.
How do sulphates affect you?
It is present in nearly all shampoos, scalp treatments, hair color and bleaching agents, toothpastes, body washes and cleansers, make-up foundations, liquid hand soaps, laundry detergents, and bath oils/bath salts.
SLS enters your body from skin contact and mouth ingestion. Once inside the body it can react with other chemicals to form nitrosamines, a potent class of carcinogens.
SLS has been shown to corrode hair follicles and impair hair growth.
The American College of Toxicology found that concentrations as low as 0.5% could cause irritation and concentrations of 10-30% caused skin corrosion and severe irritation. In clinical studies it has been shown to be a skin irritant at concentrations over 1%. This ingredient is commonly present in shampoo at 1-2% concentrations.
SLS's are known to create nitrosamines when combined with other common ingredients such as formaldehyde releasers such as DMDM hydantoin or imidazolidinyl urea.
Environmental effects of sulphates
The main problem with sulphates is that they can potentially cause problems with drinking water. While sulphates may not be harmful to health in small quantities, at higher levels they can have toxic effects on both humans and animals. Animals with gills, such as fish and certain species of molluscs, are particularly susceptible to the effects of sulphates in water. Sulphates also affect other plants by changing the pH level of water, making it more acidic than usual. This can have a detrimental effect on the growth of crops, plants and other organisms.
How to avoid sulphates
Products containing sulphates have also been shown to contain 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen that contaminates other ingredients during manufacturing.
As consumers become more aware of the dangers of sulphate, some companies have begun producing sulphate-free soaps. However, consumers should be aware that these products are not actually sulphate-free — they simply use one of several different types of sulphate to generate lather in order to appeal to a wider market.
The best way to avoid harmful sulphates is by reading labels carefully. Unfortunately, many manufacturers do not list individual ingredients on their packaging — only vague terms like "cleansing agents."