SLS is a controversial additive in many personal care and cleaning products. Although it’s obtained a green light for safety in many formulations, many people feel that they experience negative side effects directly correlated to the use of products containing SLS.
Whether or not SLS is safe is one part of the debate. The second part of the debate is whether or not it’s even necessary in toothpaste. With all things considered, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that SLS serves no meaningful purpose in many products, and that alone is reason enough to avoid it.
What is SLS?
SLS is an abbreviation for sodium lauryl sulfate. Many consumers weren’t even aware of the ingredient or what it did until many products began to advertise on their packaging that the ingredient was eliminated from their formula.
SLS is what’s considered a surfactant ingredient. Surfactants are used to remove surface tension between other ingredients or materials. With surface tension removed, products can lather or react with relative ease.
SLS has a close cousin in SLES, the similarly named sodium laureth sulfate. Sodium laureth sulfate is similar in that it’s used for the exact same purpose, but different in that it’s far more mild than SLS and widely recognized as being less irritating to the skin.
What is SLS Used For?
SLS is used to make bubbles or foam, and it is used in almost every single product that bubbles or foams. SLS is what gives shampoo, body wash, and liquid soap the thick, rich lather that we’re all used to. It’s also used to create a foaming effect in laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent, dish soap, and many spray cleansers. SLS is the chemical that makes toothpaste foam up as you continue to brush.
Is SLS Safe?
The Food and Drug Administration has declared SLS safe as a food additive. This declaration is somewhat odd when considered in conjunction with their other declarations and findings regarding SLS.
SLS underwent a safety assessment in 1983. The results of this assessment were published in the International Journal of Toxicology. They declared SLS to be safe, but with a lot of specifications as to how it is to be used and the duration of exposure to the surfactant.
The assessment states that any product containing SLS intended to come into contact with skin should contain no more than 1% of the ingredient by volume. It also states that products containing SLS should be used as briefly as possible. The same study found that repeated exposure to SLS can cause moderate skin irritation.
It seems contradictory to deem an ingredient safe while, in the same breath, recognizing that the ingredient can cause moderate skin irritation and suggesting that exposure to that ingredient be kept as minimal as possible. The study’s conclusion of “safe” would not correlate with most people’s definition of “safe.”
Unless the packaging specifically states otherwise, it’s safe to assume shampoo contains SLS. It is recommended that hair should be lathered for up to three minutes before rinsing it out, leaving the residue to run down your body. Then, you’ll use a body wash that may contain even more SLS to wash yourself with. You might also use a face cleanser with SLS, and then a toothpaste with SLS.
The way people typically interact with the ingredient typically leads to prolonged periods of exposure to a wealth of SLS. SLS has never been evaluated for safety in a way that’s relevant to its use in the modern world. We do know with certainty that SLS is a ubiquitous ingredient that most people use large amounts of for much longer than brief periods.
It’s easy to draw the logical conclusion that the everyday application of SLS as an ingredient would not fit within the parameters of what the study declared somewhat safe.
SLS, Skin Sensitivity, and Irritation
If you’ve ever gotten soap or shampoo in your eyes, you know that it burns. The cornea is very thin and very sensitive, much unlike the skin on the rest of the body. Unless you have very sensitive skin, you may not immediately feel a reaction to SLS.
Just because you don’t feel an immediate reaction doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing one. For example, sunburn plays out in a similar way. You’re out on the beach and having a great time. You’re warm from the sun. You won’t notice sunburn or feel the result of the pain and skin damage until long after it’s over.
Exposure to the lather of SLS can have long term irritating effects on the skin. When SLS lathers, it removes all of your body’s natural protective oils and films. These oils and films aren’t dirty - they’re a part of our natural defenses that help to keep our skin nourished. Oils lock in moisture that keep the skin and scalp properly hydrated and maintain the proper balance of natural bacteria.
Many people write off the side effects as having dry skin or dry hair. They use moisturizers or special conditioning treatments to fix a problem they don’t realize is completely preventable.
If you frequently experience dry skin or a dry scalp, try switching to SLS free hair care and skincare products. In a few weeks, dryness may subside.
How is SLS Harmful In Toothpaste?
Most people know that their skin and scalp produce oil because it leaves visible evidence. We can clearly see when we have oily skin or oily hair. Our mouth is already wet, and we don’t often look inside of it.
Your mouth, like the rest of your body, has its own microbiome. There is a balance of good and bad bacteria constantly fighting it out. Your mouth develops a natural film over your teeth and your gums, designed to seal them away from bad bacteria.
SLS does a fantastic job of loosening food particles and debris from the teeth, drawing them up into the lather. That’s why so many companies use SLS in their toothpastes. The only problem is that SLS doesn’t have the ability to pick and choose what it’s removing.
When you brush your teeth with SLS toothpaste, that satisfying lather washes everything away. Including the things you need to keep your mouth healthy. Disrupting the balance of bacteria in your mouth only creates more problems for your body to solve. Instead of using its energy and resources to heal and power you, it’s devoting time and power to attempting to fix mistakes you unknowingly made.
SLS is a recognized irritant, and you’re scrubbing it directly into the sensitive skin inside of your mouth. Brushing your teeth for a total of four minutes a day, two in the morning and two at night, would constitute as prolonged exposure to SLS. Gums can become inflamed or red as a result of SLS exposure.
Even if you don’t have sensitive skin and your teeth are in perfect health, there’s still no reason for SLS to be an ingredient in your toothpaste. Especially not when there are so many effective natural toothpastes that get the job done without powerful surfactants.
Alternatives to SLS in Oral Care
One of the most effective ways to remove debris from the teeth is flossing. Flossing doesn’t introduce any chemicals or artificial ingredients into your mouth. It simply removes the things that may be quietly decaying there, contributing to tooth erosion and creating cavities.
Natural mouthwash will work to eliminate what floss loosened up. Swishing thoroughly for about thirty seconds will further loosen any remaining debris, making it easy for you to spit out. Brushing your teeth for two minutes will contribute to the same process by loosening the debris from teeth and polishing away surface stains.
Almost every part of a comprehensive oral care routine already does what SLS is intended to do. SLS is highly redundant in that regard. If you’re taking care of your teeth the way you’re supposed to, the only function that SLS truly serves is to make your toothpaste foam up in your mouth. You don’t need this foam for your mouth to be clean. You only need a natural antibacterial agent.
Freeing your body from unnecessary irritants is simply good common sense. Enough people have reported negative side effects due to SLS use that almost every company has formulated an SLS free version of their most popular offering. You won’t have to go out of your way to find an alternative to the products you currently use.
The tissue in your mouth is among the most sensitive tissue in your body, and it needs to be treated as delicate. Even if you don’t want to ditch your shampoo or your hand soap, you should consider switching your toothpaste to something a little more gentle. You might miss the effect of the lather at first, but remember: it isn’t the lather that’s keeping your teeth clean.