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Ingredient Insider: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

If you haven't checked this one out on your skincare/haircare ingredient's list, you should. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.

When we clean our face or wash our hair we use what is called in cosmetic chemistry: detergents. They reduce the surface tension of the dirt and oil on the skin's surface and form an emulsion to lift them from the skin.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is an ingredient primarily used to make cleansers and shampoos foam. It may also serve as an emulsifier, helping oil based and water based ingredients to stay mixed. SLS can be present in body washes, soaps, shampoos, and toothpastes. 

Many articles and opinions have been written on the should or shouldn't, safety, long term effects of exposure and more. Skincare philosophy is always personal: read up on SLS and come to an informed opinion.

This blog will focus on the correlation of SLS and breakouts. 

SLS -  moisture loss and impact on the skin's barrier function

SLS is designed to remove oils. It does not differentiate between oils in products and those naturally present on our skin. After washing your face (or hair) with a foaming cleanser containing SLS, your skin will feel clean: the surfactant has stripped away the skin’s oils. This can be problematic, as the absence of oils weakens the skin's ability to retain moisture, and over time can compromise the skin barrier. To compensate the lack of oil, the sebaceous glands secrete more oil - something we want to control if battling breakouts.

SLS - pore clogging properties

SLS is furthermore extremely pore clogging. Its comedogenic rating is 5, the highest on the comedogenic scale. (see blog on Facial Oils) If you battle with breakouts, it is imperative to use a cleanser that does the opposite: clean the pores and keep them unclogged. (see blog on Salicylic Acid).  

SLS - a skin irritant

Lastly, SLS can be irritating, especially when lingering on the skin. If acne is present, SLS can inflame these lesions more. Compromised skin, due to a weakened skin barrier, or pre-existing sensitivities stands at risk to become more irritated. If you use a product - cleanser, body wash, shampoo or toothpaste with SLS, be sure to rinse it off properly, as irritation becomes more likely with prolonged exposure.

The bottom line - read ingredient labels, know your skin, identify your skin concerns and if ingredients are a trigger. If you feel SLS does not work well with your skin, look for less irritating alternatives, or SLS free products. The reality will be that most likely you cannot completely avoid sulfates - or become an expert in cosmetic chemistry - so find brands you trust and are conscious about safety. Your esthetician is here to help

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