If you’ve ever looked at a bottle of shampoo or toothpaste and turned it over to scan the ingredients list, chances are you’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer number of chemical and synthetic additives that are included in its formula. That seems a little unintuitive, right? After all, shouldn’t a powerful product rely on a few key, effective ingredients?
Modern cleaning product manufacturers love to stuff synthetic compounds and ingredients into their formulas for supposed extra power or cleaning benefits. But, in more cases than one, these synthetic compounds can lead to side effects later down the road and cause issues for the environment.
Some of the worst culprits are sulfates: synthetic chemicals derived from sulfur and other additives. Sulfates are known to cause serious issues in some people and may cause direct harm to the environment. Let’s break down what exactly sulfates are and why they’re so bad in more detail.
Sulfates: An Overview
Sulfates are salts made when chemicals mix and react with sulfuric acid – that’s where they get their name. Sulfates as a broader group include any synthetic and sulfate-based chemicals. Common examples in the hair product industry include sodium lauryl sulfate (or SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (or SLES).
Most sulfates are produced at great cost to the environment, as you need to mix petroleum with various plant-based products, like palm oil. Not only is petroleum bad by itself, but palm oil is really difficult to extract and energy-intensive to create.
As a result, skin care and hair care products are where you can find most sulfates, although manufacturers sneak them into all kinds of personal care or cleanliness products.
Why Are Sulfates Used?
Sulfates are popular throughout many industries because they create a lathering effect when mixed with other chemicals. As you probably know, soaps and other cleaning products usually create lathers (foaming and bubbly textures) as they work and get rid of grime and dirt.
As a result, manufacturers mix sulfates with other products to create a stronger lather, which in turn makes a given product seem like it’s a little more powerful or better at cleaning than its competitors. The thing is that this is all just aesthetics – there’s no evidence to suggest that sulfates are necessarily better at cleaning things than other chemicals.
That’s why there’s a lot of controversy surrounding sulfates. They aren’t technically bad at face-value, but they don’t add anything truly necessary or important to the products they are mixed with.
This means that they’re essentially wasteful ingredients. After all, what really matters for cleaning products is how good of a job they do, not how foaming or lather-y they look.
Risks of Sulfates
While plenty of people use sulfate-infused products without issues, there are certain risks and dangers that come with those ingredients. This is especially true when it comes to sulfates that are derived from petroleum.
Since petroleum products all take a significant toll on the environment, it’s recommended that you avoid any sulfate products if you want to be eco-friendly. This is one of the big reasons why none of the products that Dr. Brite offers use sulfate in any part of the manufacturing process.
Both SLS and SLES can potentially cause eye, skin, and lung irritation depending on how they are absorbed or ingested. This is especially true with long-term use.
For instance, if you use a hair care product, you might find that sulfates cause dry skin, dry hair, dandruff, and other signs of irritation like inflamed skin or red bumps. SLES in particular can be contaminated with certain substances that may cause cancer over long periods of time.
Another potential example is with makeup. Makeup products that include sulfates could potentially irritate the skin around your eyes or your eyes themselves. Eye makeup with sulfates can lead to red eyes, dry eyes, or even worse side effects.
In the worst-case scenario, inhaling sulfates (due to inhaling makeup powder or other accidents) could cause lung irritation and inflammation. By irritating the lining of your lungs, you could open yourself up to future health concerns and serious risks.
Sulfates and several synthetic oils like palm oils are pretty controversial these days, and for good reason. The greenhouse gas effect that is driving the majority of climate change is only exacerbated by producing sulfates and oils like palm oil. These products are really wasteful even if they do come with benefits for their users (and even that’s debatable).
Specifically, any products that include sulfates should never be washed down the drain. That’s because sulfates can be especially toxic to aquatic animals, and any drains that lead to the ocean could accidentally cause these animals to ingest sulfates over time.
Furthermore, lots of sulfate product manufacturers test their stuff on animals before bringing the completed product to market. They do this to make sure that their makeup or hair care product won’t cause too much irritation to human skin, eyes, or lungs.
By not using consumer products with sulfates, you can also oppose these unhealthy and inappropriate testing practices.
Bottom line: sulfates are expensive to manufacture, bad for the environment due to their manufacturing processes, and could cause harm to plant or animal life if they and up in the environment after being disposed of.
How to Avoid Sulfates in Your Daily Products
Unfortunately, it can be tough to avoid sulfates if you don’t know where they’re often used. While manufacturers are required by law to list any sulfates they use in their products, it’s tough to read complex ingredient lists every time. Sometimes, manufacturers will also try to hide the name of one or more sulfates by giving them different names.
Here are some common products where SLS and SLES are frequently used:
- Liquid commercial soaps, especially dish soap. Again, sulfates are used because manufacturers want to give the impression of a stronger cleaning product by producing a more powerful lathering effect.
- Shampoos. By the same token, manufacturers may include sulfates in their shampoo products to give the product a “soapier” texture and make people think that it’s more effective.
- Laundry and dish detergents. Both of these soaps may be infused with sulfates since manufacturers don’t think people could be harmed by the compounds. However, water may still mix with the sulfates and eventually be washed out to the ocean, leading to environmental damage.
- Toothpaste products. Many people believe their toothpaste needs to foam and lather to be effective, even though nothing could be further from the truth. We make our toothpaste products entirely without sulfate and without fluoride: another mineral that may cause more harm than good.
- Bath bombs also usually include sulfates. Avoid these if at all possible, or use natural ingredient-based alternatives if you really want a foaming bubble bath experience.
Of course, not all manufacturers use the same amount of sulfates in their products. Sulfate concentrations can range from as little as 5% all the way up to 50%.
But it ultimately doesn’t matter. You should always try to avoid sulfates in your products, no matter what they are or what they are used for. Sulfates don’t produce enough value for any purpose to be worth the cost to the environment or the potential risk to your skin, eyes, and lungs.
Are Sulfates Safe At All?
While there isn’t any direct evidence that links SLS and SLES to cancer and more serious side effects, the truth is that many of these conditions take time to develop. The link between sulfates and these conditions may become stronger and more well-known with time, which is why scientists are continuing to study sulfates and their effects on the human body.
Furthermore, it is known that sulfates can have short-term effects on your skin, eyes, and lungs. Put another way, why would you risk using sulfates when there are plenty of other alternative products that can do just as good of a job without the risk?
In the end, we hope to eventually reach a world where sulfates are never used in any manufacturing or product lines. Sulfates simply aren’t valuable and come with too many risks and costs to the environment to be worthwhile over the long-term.
Fortunately, companies like Dr. Brite are pushing the envelope in terms of environmental friendliness. We offer effective and affordable products made from environmentally friendly ingredients and alternatives. Best of all, we avoid sulfates as a rule, not including them in anything we produce, whether in cleaning products or toothpastes or anything else.
Be sure to check out our selections of toothpaste and other cleaning supplies if you want sulfate-free choices for your everyday needs.