Let's talk about SLS

Industry experts agree that sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is safe and effective, so why are we working so hard to remove it from Lush products? 

Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is a chemical that’s commonly used in soaps, shampoos, shower gels and toothpaste. It works as a surfactant, trapping oil-based dirt so that it can be rinsed away with water. It’s also an effective foaming agent — it turns liquids into foam, creating the rich lather that most of us expect and enjoy when we’re washing our face, hair and body.

Despite being used safely and successfully since the 1930s, SLS has a bad reputation. Although experts agree that it’s safe to use, SLS can be drying. This is more likely to be an issue for those who have dry, processed or afro hair, or suffer from skin conditions like eczema, dermatitis or psoriasis — so we’re committed to offering alternatives.

We’re particularly keen to reduce our use of safe synthetic ingredients like SLS because palm oil is used in their production. Since 2008, we’ve been trying to remove palm oil from our supply chain due to the devastating impact its cultivation has on the environment. To produce palm oil, tropical forests are razed to make way for palm tree plantations, displacing indigenous people, destroying wildlife and disrupting the delicate ecosystem in the process. However, boycotting palm oil is easier said than done.

“Finding a suitable palm-free SLS is challenging not only because there isn’t a large market but, when found, it often doesn’t work or the manufacturer doesn’t follow our non-animal testing policy,” explains Mark Rumbell, Lush’s Ethical Buyer.

We’re still working hard to reduce our palm oil print, as this helps us to preserve natural habitats and protect human rights. “At the moment, SLS goes into 52 of our products,” explains Mark. “We’re looking for materials that can either replace SLS or be used alongside it to reduce our overall usage and create a better product. The aim is to get rid of palm-based SLS altogether.”

Should you be stressed about SLS?

In recent years, there has been increased negativity towards products that contain SLS, partly because reports have incorrectly linked it to cancer. Nicola Smith, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, told us: “There’s no evidence to suggest that sodium lauryl sulphate causes cancer. Cosmetics are under tight regulation in Europe and have to be shown to be safe before they can be sold. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unfounded rumours on the internet about cosmetics causing cancer but they simply aren’t backed up by convincing scientific evidence.”

It’s likely that these concerns stem from confusion surrounding the manufacturing process. The SLS that we use is derived from coconut and/or palm kernel oil, both of which are rich sources of lauric acid. This lauric acid is processed into SLS by adding sulphuric acid (from petroleum) followed by neutralisation with sodium carbonate (a natural mineral). Some reports have claimed that this process produces chemical compounds known as ‘nitrosamines’, of which 90% are believed to be carcinogenic. However, it’s chemically impossible for nitrosamines to be found in SLS.

“For years, sodium lauryl suplhate has been developing a negative reputation with consumers due to flawed interpretations of the scientific literature that continue to be perpetuated,” says Cosmetic Chemist Kelly Dobos. “Sodium lauryl sulfate is produced by the sulfation of lauryl alcohol. No chemicals used in the synthesis contain nitrogen so the resulting SLS contains no nitrogen and therefore no possible presence of nitrosamines.”

There are also concerns about the impact that SLS can have on marine life, since all soap and shampoo products are released into the environment via household water waste. According to Kelly, we don’t need to worry. She explains: “The ability of a chemical to decompose into simple, nontoxic components under normal environmental conditions within a short period of time (96 hours or less) means that it is biodegradable. SLS has been shown to be readily biodegradable not biopersistant. By the time personal care product ingredients reach natural waters, they are mostly degraded. Ecotoxicity studies have determined that these low concentrations of SLS would be essentially nontoxic to fish and other aquatic life.”

Getting in a lather

Many of us don’t feel completely clean unless we use lather up with soaps and shampoos. However, the sulphates which are responsible for producing this luxurious foam can be harsh and drying, leaving hair frizzy. Although dryness is a common concern, irritation is unlikely, even among people who have sensitive skin, provided that the foam is rinsed off thoroughly. In fact, the risk is so small that there are no EU limits on the usage of SLS in wash-off products, as irritation only occurs with products that are left on the skin.

“Most people can use products containing SLS without worrying about skin or scalp irritation,” says Dr Stefanie Morris, Dermatologist & Medical Director at European Dermatology London. “This is because it’s a rinse-off product — the contact time is short and, after rinse-off, there is extremely little SLS (if any), which stays on the skin/scalp.”

If your hair is dry, delicate, damaged or processed, you’ll be happy to hear that the majority of Lush liquid shampoos are SLS-free, and contain the gentler surfactants ammonium laureth sulphate (ALS) and sodium alkyl sulphate (SAS) instead. For example, Curly Wurly shampoo contains ALS along with coconut and jojoba oil to nourish curly hair, while Blousey shampoo contains ALS along with bananas, cocoa and cupuaçu butters to soften hair and restore moisture.

Alternatively, shampoo bars are an excellent option for sensitive scalps, mainly because of the way they are used. A single shampoo bar is the equivalent to three 200ml bottles of liquid shampoo, so although they contain a very high concentration of SLS — up to 90% — the risk of irritation is very low because only the foam is applied to the hair and scalp. We recommend shampoo bars to customers who want to reduce their SLS usage because the amount that you apply is easier to control. There’s no need to squeeze a large dollop of shampoo onto your scalp. Instead, you prepare the product in your hands first, before distributing it evenly through the hair.

“This is quite a dramatic difference,” explains Lush co-founder and herbal trichologist Mark Constantine. “When you use a liquid shampoo you apply the neat material to your scalp, but you don’t get that with a shampoo bar — you only get the foam that comes off the material, which means that even people with the most sensitive scalps can use it.”

If you’re sold on shampoo bars but want a lower-SLS alternative, try Jason And The Argan Oil shampoo bar; it’s made with agar agar, a cleansing seaweed extract, which enables us to use 23% less SLS.

Raising the bar

In 2017, we launched our reformulated gourmet soap range using our own in-house soap base. Our base has been palm free since 2006, but now that we don’t need to add SLS or sodium stearate we can guarantee that the entire soap, and all its ingredients, don’t include any traces of palm.

This in-house soap base is made from a blend of Fair Trade organic cocoa butter, extra virgin coconut oil and organic castor oil, mixed with sodium hydroxide to induce a reaction called saponification. This creates the lathering solid base of the soap on which infusions, juices or oils are added to benefit the skin and provide fragrance. It can also be blended with other soap bases made with different ingredients such as olive or argan oil, to create a greater range of textures and lathers.

We’ve since reformulated some of our most popular soaps too, including Honey I Washed the Kids, Coalface and Rock Star. These are currently only available on our website and, as a result, the majority of our soaps no longer contain SLS. After lots of work and reformulation, the #LushLabs shampoo bars released in October 2018 were also entirely SLS-free.

What this is all means is that customers now have even more choice, making it easier to find the products and ingredients that work best for you.


Comments (68)


about 3 weeks ago

I have just watch Stink on Netflix and begun my own research. I have just bought £260 plus worth of Christmas presents and I am returning them all as most have SLS and other dodgy ingredients. Read this https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/07/13/sodium-lauryl-sulfate.aspx Until harmful chemicals and palm are removed I am not shopping in Lush any more.

about 1 month ago

Just switch to alpha olefin sulfonates... they aren't sulphates and can easily go 1:1 on most things.


about 3 months ago

LUSH, I have to say I'm saddened to hear about the use of palm oil-derived SLS products you keep producing....these ingredients are so harsh for the skin and scalp, any professional hair stylist would tell you this is what is stunting hair growth, causing inflamed skin, and drying out hair. Not only this, but palm oil in and of itself is horrible to use in your products. The environment depends on companies like yours, who care so much about the planet, to STOP using it altogether! I love LUSH to death but I really want your board of directors to consider stopping this practice. Renpure Organics, Giovanni Cosmetics, Mill Creek, Shea Moisture, and many more companies have SLS-free and palm oil-free products. even L'Oreal (an extremely corrupt company) has a sulfate-free haircare line! I know you guys can get rid of it, and I promise you your customers will love you for it. Your haircare products WILL sell just as much without it, if not more. <3


about 2 weeks ago

Well said Sarah!


about 3 months ago

Not only does SLS / SLES can contain Palm Oil, it's used as an IRRITANT in clinical science studies... mainly because it is! All ionic surfactants have protein denaturing properties causing irritation... just read this article: https://www.r10labs.com/whats-the-deal-with-sulfates-in-skincare/


about 4 months ago

I am BEYOND disappointed in the brand I once used to love so much. I worked at Lush for over a year and was always proud to state that all of our products are palm oil free, I was always under the impression that the SLS was from coconut oil and only NOW do I find out that it’s all a big money-grab scam??? SLS is the main reason why even I myself can’t use any of the shampoos/conditioners because they irritate my scalp like no other and while working there I had to reccomend these very products to the trusting customers for astronomical prices. Even the smallest vegan cosmetics brands can do without sulfates and parabens and all LUSH ever does is find excuses to continue to make as much money as possible. I’m gutted and saddened that I used to buy into this bullcrap!!


about 4 months ago

I am disappointed that you do not provide more natural ingredients instead of using derived from products. This does not mean it's natural. SLS has had multiple studies whereby it shows its link to decreased fertifility and other hormonal changes in humans as well as massive effects on wildlife and sealife. Please provide alternatives and products that are much more natural. Lots of other vegan companies achieve shampoo bars with no SLS/SLES or ALS why can't yours?

about 4 months ago

Having suffered from mouth ulcers for years, plus sensitive skin on my hands which regularly cracked and bled, I finally traced the issue to SLS in my toothpaste, shampoo, and in almost every handwash I encountered. I work in a research lab, so washing my hands regularly and thoroughly is contractually obliged, and as I am the only person in the lab with an SLS-sensitivity I'm allowed to bring in my own handwash. I had hoped to buy something from LUSH, but it feels awful to stumble across this page instead. It's really demoralising to have your pain and irritation dismissed as "fuss", especially when all of your stats are stating that "most people" don't have an issue with SLS. This means that some people do! Some people really struggle to find products which suit their skincare needs, and I really would have thought that LUSH would be respectful and supportive of all customers who want to use their products. Please consider re-phrasing some of your statements, and try not to be so contemptuous of people whose hands literally bleed when they was with SLS soaps.


about 5 months ago

I don’t know how companies can use palm oil with no conscious.. it’s NOT needed. Companies like yours are the reason orangutans, elephants, leapards and other species are DYING. Literally on the verge of extinction. Please do something. Make it your top priortory. Your company will be a lot more attractive to customers if we see you making a difference and taking a stand to the deforestation problems.


about 5 months ago

I naively assumed that you weren't using SLS, and so was puzzled when I had a reaction to a couple of products. I was horrified to find that they contained not only SLS, but also SLES. Not only do they do the same job, so there surely shouldn't be a need for both, but my dermatologist informed me that, when combined, they can increase sensitivity to other ingredients that cause a mild personal reaction. I have found this to be true, as I definitely get more of a problem with products containing one or more ingredient that irritates me
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