Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)

It’s fair to say that sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are controversial ingredients in the skincare world. Let’s discover why this is, and if you really need to be avoiding them. 

What are SLS and SLES, and what do they do? 

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are compounds termed as surfactants, and are used for their cleansing and foaming properties. They’re commonly found in household cleaning and personal hygiene products, including cleansers, body washes, toothpaste and shampoos. They’re very effective at cleansing the skin and causing the foaming effect often seen in cleansers. 

What are the concerns with using SLS and SLES, and should I avoid them? 

SLS and SLES can both cause skin irritation, dryness, and disrupt the skin barrier function. Claims have been made that they’re carcinogenic, but there’s no evidence to support this. If you tolerate them, they’re safe to use. However, if you have sensitive or irritable skin, you may consider avoiding these ingredients. 

What’s the difference between SLS and SLES?

When it comes to skincare, the key difference between the two is that SLES is milder and less irritating than SLS.

Ananthapadmanabhan KP, Moore DJ, Subramanyan K, Misra M, Meyer F. Cleansing without compromise: the impact of cleansers on the skin barrier and the technology of mild cleansing. Dermatol Ther. 2004;17 Suppl 1:16-25.

Bondi CA, Marks JL, Wroblewski LB, Raatikainen HS, Lenox SR, Gebhardt KE. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environ Health Insights. 2015;9:27-32.

Charbonnier V, Morrison BM Jr, Paye M, Maibach HI. Subclinical, non-erythematous irritation with an open assay model (washing): sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) versus sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). Food Chem Toxicol. 2001 Mar;39(3):279-86.


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Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…