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What you need to know about SLS in skincare formulas

It’s a common ingredient, but it may be one to avoid.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 1, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
young woman washing face
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 1, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

It’s natural to have questions about skincare ingredients. Take sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), for example. Some people say that it’s harmless, while others say it may cause skin issues—causing some confusion as to its viability.

Fortunately, trustworthy, research-based sources are available. Here, our team of dermatology experts will explain what the research says about the potential benefits and risks of SLS in skincare products, as well as what a good skincare routine should look like.

What is SLS?

SLS, or sodium lauryl sulfate, is made from sodium carbonate, lauryl alcohol, and sulfur trioxide.¹ Once created, SLS serves multiple roles in skincare products. For example, it is a detergent that helps to remove dirt and grime (a “surfactant”).² Additionally, as a foaming agent, it helps to create a rich lather.³ As we’ll discuss later, SLS also has many potential risks.⁴ These risks are important to understand due to the widespread use of SLS across various products you may consider purchasing.

Where you’ll find SLS

SLS is common in products that may come in contact with the face and skin. SLS can be referred to by various names, such as sodium dodecyl sulfate and neutrazyme.⁵ Here are several household items that may contain SLS:

Food: SLS is an FDA-approved food additive.⁶ It is found in egg whites, marshmallows, fruit juice, and vegetable oil, among other foods.⁷ However, these foods only contain SLS in relatively tiny amounts. In food, the concentration of SLS is often between 10-125 parts per million (PPM), but in egg-white solids, it’s as high as 1,000 PPM.⁸ 

Toothpaste: SLS helps to create foam in toothpaste, and is found in higher quantities relative to food. This concentration is generally between 0.5% and 2%.⁹ For skincare, some people use toothpaste for issues such as pimples, but we advise against doing so.

Cleaning products: SLS is in many detergents and household cleaning products.¹⁰ Its concentration in these formulas is often between 1% and 30%.¹¹

Skincare products: SLS serves as a cleansing agent in various skincare products such as body wash, shampoo, and cosmetic products.¹² As a surfactant,¹³ it may also help you remove stubborn makeup. Keep in mind that the SLS in these products varies widely from 0.01% to 50%.¹⁴

What the research says about SLS for skincare 

Now that we’ve discussed what SLS is and where you can find it, let’s look at the research. Spoiler alert—it may not be the best for your skin.

SLS may dehydrate skin

One reason to potentially avoid skin contact with SLS is that it may lead to increased transepidermal water loss (or skin dehydration).¹⁵ If your skin becomes dry, consider using a moisturizer, such as this one by Curology to rehydrate your skin. 

SLS may be a skin irritant

In addition to transepidermal water loss, SLS may cause skin irritation.¹⁶ However, some other ingredients (‘cosurfactants”) may decrease how irritating the formula is.¹⁷ 

Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to keep an eye out for red, irritated, or itchy skin after using a new product. Let your dermatology provider know if you experience these symptoms.

SLS may irritate your eyes

In addition to irritating skin, SLS may harm the eyes–especially in high concentrations.¹⁸ But keep in mind that some beauty products that may contain SLS—such as eyeliner or a facial cleanser—are designed for safe application around your eyes and on your face. However, if you use products with SLS that aren’t specifically created for use on your face, ensure your eyes are protected.

SLS may lead to acne

SLS is also comedogenic, meaning that it is a pore-clogging ingredient and may cause acne.¹⁹ ²⁰ This is why we recommend avoiding it if possible. As you review skincare products, it may help to know that there are alternatives to products with SLS.

Finding personal care products without SLS

There are many optimal alternatives to SLS, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin. These options help to cleanse your skin without some of the potential risks.

Micellar water

Micellar water is soap-free and you generally don’t need to rinse it off. It’s a great facial cleanser because it can help keep your skin hydrated. It may even help reduce skin redness and other associated symptoms in rosacea patients as part of a skincare regimen suitable for sensitive skin.²¹ One example of a product with micellar water is Curology’s Micellar Makeup Remover.

Stearic acid

Stearic acid is another surfactant that can help to cleanse skin. You can find it in a variety of products, such as soap, body lotion, moisturizers, and cosmetic products, as well as Curology’s Gentle Cleanser.²²

FAQs

Is SLS harmful to the skin?

It depends on the type of product and how long it is on your skin. For example, products containing between 1% and 2% SLS kept on the skin for 24 hours may lead to skin dehydration and irritation.²³ Additional product ingredients (called “cosurfactants”) may also decrease how irritating SLS is for your skin.²⁴

While skincare products are obviously meant for use on the skin, some cleaning products with SLS are not designed for skin contact.²⁵ Here are some tips to consider when using cleaning products with SLS:

  • Use gloves while cleaning.

  • Avoid spraying cleaning chemicals near your skin, especially if they create a mist that hangs in the air.

  • If you have long hair, secure it with a hair tie before cleaning so you don’t need to brush back your hair while cleaning. After all, you may not want to touch your face or neck in the process.

Also, whenever you use a product, it is a good idea to look at the instructions on the product’s label for specific guidance about how it could potentially harm your skin.

What does SLS do to your face?

SLS may dehydrate or irritate your face.²⁶ It may also lead to contact dermatitis.²⁷ Additionally,  concentrated forms of SLS—such as levels found in cleaning chemicals—may harm your eyes.²⁸ 

Should you avoid SLS in shampoo?

The specifics of your skincare routine is a personal decision between you and your dermatology provider. Some people with sensitive skin may prefer to avoid SLS in facial cleansers and hair products. However, other people may be able to use products like shampoo that contains SLS without any issues. That said, SLS is known to be potentially pore-clogging and may cause acne near the hairline.

Finding high-quality skincare products

Though it’s normal to have questions, skincare doesn’t need to be complicated—Curology can help you take out the guesswork. Board-certified dermatologists founded Curology in 2014. Today, we work hard to provide accessible care for conditions like acne and rosacea.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Our team of licensed dermatology providers uses personalized formulas with clinically proven ingredients to help patients with concerns like acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, and signs of aging such as fine lines. So if you’re looking for personalized skincare advice, let us know and we will pair you up with one of our licensed dermatology providers. Get started today!*

• • •

P.S. We did our homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. (2015, November 17).

  2. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  3. PubChem. Compound Summary for CID 3423265, Sodium dodecyl sulfate. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2023, May 13).

  4. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and environmental toxicity of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): evidence for safe use in household cleaning products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  5. PubChem. Compound Summary for CID 3423265, Sodium dodecyl sulfate. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Ibid.

  6. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. (2023, March 28).

  7. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Ibid.

  8. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Ibid.

  9. Barkvoll, P. Should toothpastes foam? Sodium lauryl sulfate–a toothpaste detergent in focus. Nor Tannlaegeforen Tid. (February 1989).

  10. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  11. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  12. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  13. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  14. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  15. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  16. Prakash, C., et al. Skin Surface pH in Acne Vulgaris: Insights from an Observational Study and Review of the Literature. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (July 2017).

  17. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  18. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  19. Fulton, J.E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (January 1984).

  20. Prakash, C., et al. Skin Surface pH in Acne Vulgaris: Insights from an Observational Study and Review of the Literature. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  21. Guertler, A., et al. Efficacy and safety results of micellar water, cream and serum for rosacea in comparison to a control group. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2020, July 5).

  22. PubChem. Stearic Acid. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2023, May 13).

  23. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  24. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  25. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  26. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

  27. Litchman, G., et al. Contact Dermatitis. StatPearls. (2023, February 9).

  28. Bondi, C.AM., et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environmental Health Insights. Ibid.

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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