Are Sulfates in Skincare Bad for You?

Are sulfates bad? They’re cleansing agents that remove dirt and oil, and they’ve had a prominent place in many cleansers and shampoo recipes for decades. Maybe it’s because of the easy lather they create when mixed with water. As a surfactant, they attract both oil and water, making it easy to dissolve that oil and cart it away. The most common is sodium lauryl sulfate, otherwise known as SLS. It’s been used in cosmetics and personal cleaners for almost a century—since the 1930s.


Looking at Labels: Sulfates in Skincare

If you’re checking your skincare labels for sulfates, some big names you’ll notice are:

  • sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
  • ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS)
  • sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)

Each of these does the same thing: clean oil and oily residues. Some are stronger and pack more cleansing power. Others are milder and require a higher concentration to work effectively. But are they good for you? Back in 1930, we did not have the data we do now about how men's skincare products can be absorbed through the skin. There were few regulations, and we experimented with whatever chemicals seemed good.

In the 1980s, several studies came out that implied sulfate could be carcinogenic—cancer-causing, in short. That caused a minor panic, but then, when other studies implied there was no cancer connection, people decided it was safe—too early. Sulfates stayed in personal care products, and you’ll still find them there today.


Are Sulfates Bad? Spotlight on Skin

The medical position today is that sulfates probably do not cause cancer. What this doesn’t mean is that they’re safe to eat, inhale, or use on your skin.

The first and most obvious problem with sulfates, in fact, doesn’t have anything to do with your insides. They’re just too good at what they do, which, you’ll remember, is getting oil and oily substances off your skin.

Your skin isn’t meant to be stripped raw and sterile like a kitchen counter. In fact, it works hard to secrete a special moisturizing protective barrier we call the hydrolipid layer. It’s this layer which the sulfates in skincare products attack, carrying away the all-important lipids and oils. That’s why your skin may feel irritated after a wash with sulfates; you may even notice redness or rawness. It isn’t an allergic reaction; it’s just skin that’s had its hydrolipid layer ravaged and removed.


How Sulfates in Skincare Affects Our Oceans

After you use a sulfate-containing soap or shampoo, you’ll rinse off in the sink or shower, and all that sulfate foam gets swept away and disappear into nothingness. It doesn’t really disappear into nothingness though. In fact, it goes out to where you really don’t want it to be: our oceans.

That’s a problem because even at very low levels, SLS and SLES are both toxic to coral reefs. They’re not good for other sea life either, and they can alter the biological balance of our oceans so there’s no going back.


Our Position on Sulfates

If these ingredients are so problematic, why are they still used in skincare? Well, they’re cheap, they’re effective, and they really get things clean. It’s hard work to find non-sulfate surfactants that do a better job, and most shampoo and skincare companies want the easy way out.

We take your health carefully, and we don’t believe in cutting corners just because a problematic ingredient can make life easier. We also believe in living sustainably, and respecting both wildlife and our oceans. That’s why we’ve worked hard to formulate a combination of non-sulfate, non-toxic surfactants that clean your skin gently while leaving its protective barriers intact. Using our men’s skincare kit means you can be confident watching your wash water go down the drain, too—nothing in it is going to poison marine life.

At Fabric, we do better. Don’t settle for anything less.

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