What Sodium Lauryl Sulfate & Is It Safe?

Many cosmetics, toothpastes, household cleaners and detergents you commonly use contain sodium lauryl sulfate, or "SLS." The compound is a foaming agent that helps penetrate a surface to more thoroughly clean it. There has been much written about the health risks – and safety – of SLS. As a result, you might be left with more questions than answers as to whether or not products containing SLS are truly safe for you and your family. To be certain, SLS is not a known carcinogen and it's also safe in consumer cleaning products according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While SLS is safe overall, it's best to understand the factors that have led to safety concerns. Seek out your dentist's advice to be confident in what's best for you and your family.

What is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)?

SLS is found in both synthetic and organic cleaners and toothpastes. The emulsifier is liberally used in household products (containing levels up to 30 percent) and cosmetics (containing levels up to 50 percent) says the NIH. It is a surfactant or an agent that produces lather to increase the effectiveness of a product. Sodium lauryl suflate can be made synthetically or naturally. In fact, products that are advertised as "natural" can also contain SLS. The process involves combining plant or petroleum-based lauryl alcohol with sulfur trioxide to create hydrogen lauryl sulfate. It's then neutralized with sodium carbonate, reports the NIH.

Understanding SLS Health Risks

According to the NIH, there have been many mixed reports that have resulted in misconstrued and inaccurate information about the safety and toxicity of the compound. To date, the American Cancer Society does not include sodium lauryl sulfate on any list of known, probable or anticipated human carcinogens (or cancer-causing agents).

However, there are other risks. The NIH found that if you suffer from stomatitis, or mouth sores, using toothpaste with SLS can cause more irritation. SLS-free pastes were proven to offset the healing process and reduce the pain. Over time you may develop an allergy to SLS, reports Forbes. Simply switching to a toothpaste that doesn't contain the ingredient can help clear it up.

Likewise, The Wall Street Journal points out that although the compound is non-toxic, it can be a skin irritant and is one of the leading compounds to be used in studies on irritation. If you have eczema or dermatitis, SLS can cause heightened allergic reactions.

The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also notes that repeated exposure can lead to dermatitis and that short-term exposure, particularly in a powdered form, can cause irritation to your skin, eyes and respiratory tract.

Toxicity and Safety Concerns

While the compound itself is safe in the levels used for everyday household products, the components, namely sulfur trioxide, may at first seem alarming given that sulfur is a known toxin. But within the compound, sulfur is neutralized and is not toxic. It can emit toxins, notes the CDC, if it is burned and it is a combustible compound, though only at very high temperatures. For home use, always store it out of reach of children and in a space that's not close to a drain.

Unfortunately, findings are missed on SLS and the toxicity for the environment. The CDC reports that it is toxic to fresh-water organisms while the NIH qualifies that the surfactant is 99 percent environmentally friendly.

Overall, the NIH concludes that "if properly formulated and qualified, SLS does not pose a danger to human health and safety."

When introducing toothpastes to children, it's always best to start with a fluoride and SLS-free paste, like Colgate's My First Fluoride Free toothpaste, which is free of preservatives and artificial colors. It's also best to talk to your dentist, who knows your medical history and has your best interest in mind, to help you decide what is right for you.

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