What are sulphates and why all the controversy?

Despite having effective cleansing properties, sulphates as a skincare ingredient has an undeserved bad rep. So what exactly are sulphates and are they really that bad for you and the environment?


Key takeaways:

  • Sulphates are a group of cleansing agents, with varying strengths and uses
  • Plant-derived sulphates are readily available, meaning that particular types are sustainable and safe to include in your skincare regime
  • Not all sulphates are the same, so some guidance is required in evaluating product formulations for different skin types

The limits of water

Water is a lovely thing, but as a skin cleanser, it’s not the most effective. Pure water is not good at getting into the little folds and pores of our skin. Moreover, water doesn’t play well with oil, which is naturally abundant on our skin. As a result, washing with water doesn’t necessarily remove grime on our face, but rather redistributes it. If you’re lucky to have naturally well-balanced, resistant skin, then maybe water is enough, but for those of us that react poorly to blocked pores (especially in polluted urban areas), we need another solution.

For this article, skoosh investigates the myths and facts behind a common ingredient in cleansers: Sulphates (or Sulfates to the Americans).

What are sulphates?

Sulphates are a group of cleansing agents (anionic surfactants) that remove dirt and oily residue. Because of their effectiveness in cleaning many types of residue, sulphates are used in a number of products from skin cleansers to shampoo to household sprays. Along with its cleansing properties, sulphates are used in skincare to stabilise formulations (e.g. keeps products in a cream format) and help other active ingredients penetrate the skin more effectively.

What do sulphates do?

In cleansers, sulphates work with water to trap, dissolve, and disperse dirt particles on skin. Instead of just moving dirt from one place to another, sulphate cleansers remove dirt from your face. Sulphates also create that foamy feeling when mixed with water.

Although we often hear sulphates described as one group with the same properties - this is not true! There are different sulphates with varying strengths and uses. In rinse-off products, sulphates are formulated in low doses and do not stay on the skin long enough to cause problems. It’s important to be aware of the specific sulphate used in a formula, its dosage, how it’s formulated and whether it’s suitable for your skin.

These are the most common forms of sulphates on ingredient labels:

Name Usage notes
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS)
  • An effective cleanser for oily, resistant skin types
  • Can irritate dry / sensitive skin by being “too effective” and removing natural oils
  • When formulated with other cleansing agents, SLS may become less irritating
  • Potentially more irritating when used with hard water
Sodium laureth sulphate (SLES)
  • An effective cleanser for most skin types
  • Less irritating than SLS, but still moderately irritating to sensitive skin
  • Better than SLS when used in hard water
Triethanolamine lauryl sulphate (TEALS)
  • Less irritating than SLS, but still moderately irritating to sensitive skin
Ammonium lauryl sulphate (ALS)
  • Although a very effective cleanser, this ingredient may be irritating to dry and sensitive skin types
  • It's best to avoid this sulphate and look to others on this list
Ammonium laureth sulphate (ALES)
  • Less irritating than SLS, but still moderately irritating to sensitive skin
  • Potentially more irritating when used with hard water
Sodium cetyl/stearyl sulphate
  • Better tolerated by skin but less effective and foamy in water
Amide ether sulphates e.g. magnesium PEG-3 cocamide sulphate
  • Very mild cleansers that are not as effective as SLS or SLES at removing oily residue, but less irritating
Alkyl glyceride sulphates e.g. cocomonoglyceride sulphate (CMGS)
  • Better skin tolerance than other sulphates
  • Great for sensitive skin types

 

Are sulphates safe?

Sulphates are safe for any skin type, unlike other cleansing ingredients, they do not cause allergic reactions, but some guidance is needed on the formulation. Specific advice depends on the product and your individual skin, but we can provide some quick rules of thumb:

  • For non-sensitive, oily skin types, sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) are tried and tested at keeping your skin squeaky clean and in balance.
  • For sensitive / older / dry skin or if you have issues like atopic dermatitis, look for milder sulphates like amide ether sulphates or alkyl glyceride sulphates and try to wash your face no more than once a day with a cleanser.
  • Cleansers that combine sulphates with skin conditioning ingredients can also limit any potential irritation.

Finally, it’s important not to scrub your face when cleansing. The whole point of using cleansers is that they use chemistry to gently clean your skin. There is no need to vigorously scrub, which can injure your skin. Let the sulphates do their work as cleansing agents – when applying cleanser, use your fingers to rub in gentle circular motions and let it work for a moment before rinsing it off.

Are sulphates bad for you?

If there are so many benefits of using sulphates, then why do they have such a bad rep? In the beauty industry, news can spread through the grapevine, where good and bad findings are twisted and over-exaggerated. Unfortunately for sulphates, they fell into this cycle. There are 3 claims made against sulphates, and we’ll investigate the facts behind each one.

1. Do sulphates cause cancer?

NO. In 2000, an article went viral on the internet claiming SLS causes cancer. The article was based on findings that SLS can contain trace amounts of chemicals (1,4-dioxane) that have been flagged as potential carcinogens in animal experiments (NOT in humans). However, the author of the article heavily altered the findings to jump to a false conclusion that SLS causes cancer in humans.

First of all, the research on these chemicals is not definitive, so it is unclear if they cause cancer in humans. Moreover, the amount of these chemicals in products is so low that they are not a safety concern. Too much of anything causes issues (e.g. humans need vitamin A to survive, but too much can kill you. That doesn’t mean you should stop eating vitamin A). Government agencies like the FDA (US) and SCCS (EU) periodically monitor levels of 1,4-dioxane in cosmetics and have found that the amounts in products are negligible and have been declining over time. Finally, because 1,4-dioxane evaporates easily into the air, it is unlikely to be significantly absorbed by your skin.

2. Do sulphates irritate the skin?

We have already touched on this question, and the answer is it depends on the sulphate and the skin type. For instance, in certain doses, SLS may disrupt the skin’s ability to hold moisture and keep allergens out. However, in most cases, cleansers have such a low concentration of SLS that it will rarely cause irritation. For sensitive types, there are alternative sulphates and cleansers that might be more suitable.

3. Are sulphates bad for the environment?

It depends. The good news is that sulphates biodegrade fast, so when you are washing cleansers down the drain, there is no need to be worried about the impact on aquatic life. The bad news is that some sulphates are created from petrolatum, which is an unsustainable raw material. Luckily, it doesn’t mean you have to avoid sulphates to do your part for the planet – although more expensive, there are plant-derived sulphates that use renewable sources like coconut or palm oil. Plant-derived sulphates also do not contain 1,4-dioxane. When shopping for sulphate products, look for labels indicating plant derived ingredients.

Alternatives for sensitive skin

For some very sensitive skin types, there are milder cleansing agents on the market; some of which are formulated with sulphates to lower the irritation potential of the product overall. Below, we list a few types of the many alternatives on the market:

  • Potassium cocoate
  • Cocamide monoethanolamine
  • Cocamide diethanolamine
  • Alkyl polyglycoside (APG)
  • Sulfosuccinates
  • Sarcosinates
  • Isethionates
  • Fatty alcohol ethoxylates
  • Amine oxides
  • Sulfoxides

However, they may not be as good at cleansing due to lesser strength, and a few are known to cause allergic reactions.

It's all about the formula

In short, sulphates are some of the safest and most effective ingredients on the market, making them a skincare hero! When looking at sulphates, different skin types will have different needs. What really matters is the type of sulphates, the concentration, and how it blends with other ingredients. Let skoosh help you navigate this chemistry to find the right cleanser for your skin!

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