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Sulfates – myths and fact

Over the years, I have heard many customers tell me about the evils of sodium laurel sulfate (sls), a widely used surfactant (foaming agent). I have also read ‘no sulfates’ written on personal care labels and marketing material in order for the product to seem clean and non-toxic. The truth is that not all sulfates are bad. In fact, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) rates sodium laurel sulfate as ‘1 – 2′ and labels it ‘good’ in its cosmetic safety database. The concerns are that it causes skin and eye irritation in heavier doses. In a world of carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, this seems fairly low priority.

Sulfates are derived from sulphur, a basic element essential to all life and exists in everything. It is extracted from many sources but the majority of its commercial product comes from petroleum. The cosmetic industry gets most of its sulfates from coconuts and palm trees. People soak in sulphur springs and magnesium sulfate (epsom salts) for their therapeutic values so clearly the term ‘no sulfates’ is very misleading.

You can determine a sulfate’s toxicity by determining its origin. If it’s from a safe mineral such as calcium (calcium sulfate) or from fatty alcohols (stearyl, cetearyl, laurel sulfates) then it is generally non-toxic. If it’s from a petrochemical (dimethicone PEG-7 sulfate), petrochemical processing (anything with ‘eth’ i.e. sodium laureth sulfate) or harmful metals (lead sulfate) then it is going to be unsafe for you to use on your skin.

At Cocoon Apothecary, we use sodium cetearyl sulfate from the fatty alcohol of coconut as part of our emulsifier in a .2% concentration. It is rated ‘0’ (safe) by EWG.