Ask G

Ask G: What's the deal with sodium lauryl ether sulfate?

While one may be slightly better than the other, SLES and SLS are synthetic cousins in arms.

Is sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) as bad as sodium lauryl sulfate? I've been told that SLES is natural, and not cancer-causing, and a lot of things have SLES listed as coconut derived. Is it is a natural thing or not? Please help!

- Christina Borga

bubbles

SLES and SLS are responsible for the bubbley, lathering properties of many of our favourite toiletries.

Credit: Wikimedia

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Sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) is also known as sodium laureth sulfate. It acts as a detergent and surfactant, creating the 'lather' in many personal care products, including shampoos and toothpastes.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS, note the "-yl" - not be be confused with the "-eth" of SLES) is also used for its lathering properties in personal care products. It is in fact the precursor to SLES - chemists first make it, using a chemical mixture that lists sulfuric acid among its ingredients, and then modify it to come up with the less harsh SLES.

Neither SLS, or subsequently SLES, are "natural" in the way we have come to know the word - neither are pure, unaltered plant extracts, for example!

But you may see either SLS or SLES described as "coconut derived". This is because one of the ingredients used to make them, called lauryl alcohol or dodecanol, can be obtained from coconut oil (and also from palm oil).

While neither are that great for the skin (or our Earth), SLES is not as 'bad' as SLS, as it is a milder chemical. This means it is less likely to lead to problems like skin irritation.

In regards to SLES being "not cancer causing", there is currently no scientific evidence linking SLS or SLES to cancer. Check out our Ask G on this here.