Sulphate Free Is The New Soap Free (And Other Thoughts)



It occurred to me recently that it was about time I did a review series on sulphate free products here on My Funny Valentine, and as I was getting ready to write my reviews I thought it would be a good idea to preface the series with a quick rundown on why I prefer my skin care without sulphates.


What are Sulphates?

Sulphates are a class of relatively harsh surfactant (surface active) cleaning agents commonly to emulsify oils, degrease surfaces, and create foam. They are cheap and very effective at cutting through grease, which is why they are commonly used in dishwashing detergents, hand wash, floor cleaners, as well as in skin/hair care. Within the sulphate family you have Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS), Ammonium Lauryl Sulphate (ALS), Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES).  SLS and ALS are the harshest of the group and are well known to be highly irritating to the skin and eyes – in irritancy testing for research, SLS is usually used as the ‘model irritant’ [1,2,3] . Sodium Laureth Sulphate is not quite as rough on the skin as the other two- but still one of the most irritating surfactants used in skin care.

Ever since I’ve taken an interest in skin care ingredients I’ve stayed away from harsh surfactants in my cleansers. There’s a great deal of research in dermatology showing how harsh surfactants can cause damage  to the skin barrier, disrupt skin lipids and proteins, dry out the skin, and cause irritation – without necessarily doing a better job cleansing the skin than gentler agents. [1]  This applies to all skin types, but particularly effects dry and eczema prone skin (that’s me- always so lucky in life.).

Is ‘Sulphate Free’ the New ‘Soap Free’? 

For many years, we’ve known about how soap strips the skin of natural oils and compromises the skin’s barrier [1,2,3] – when sulphates were introduced into the market we started to see a lot of cleansing products becoming ‘soap free’. These days we have more options and slowly we are seeing more and more cleansers that are formulated to be ‘sulphate free’ as a result of  increased public awareness of skin care ingredients.

Lies, lies, and marketing. 

On a side note: one of my pet peeves when it comes to marketing is when brands market a moisturiser or hair conditioner as ‘sulphate free’. Sulphates are a cleansing/surfactant agent that have no role in moisturisers, serums, or conditioners- and to tell us that a moisturiser is ‘sulphate free’ is like marketing cotton candy as ‘fat free’. It’s marketing that assumes ignorance, and usually turns me into the Incredible Hulk right in the middle of the personal care (and candy) aisles in Coles.


Keep reading after the jump!

Did someone say cancer?

In recent times there has been significant public concern about SLS being linked with cancer. There is a paucity of evidence supporting any link between sulphates in skin care to cancer and both the American Cancer Society and the Cancer Council Australia have made their position very clear on this matter.


For the ingredient nerds

The well known order for the irritation potential of surfactants are:

Anionic surfactants -> amphoteric surfactants -> non-ionic surfactants


Anionic: sodium lauryl sulphate, sodium laureth sulphate, TEA- lauryl sulphate, ammonium lauryl sulphate

Amphoteric: Cocamidopropyl betaine, coco- betaine,

Non-ionic: decyl glucoside, glyceryl laurate, cocamide DEA


ps. I feel very smug about being able to access full text scholarly articles with my current UNSW student login (I’m doing a post grad part time course at the moment). Very smug indeed. 



1) Ananthapadmanabhan, K. P., Moore, D. J., Subramanyan, K., Misra, M. and Meyer, F. (2004), Cleansing without compromise: the impact of cleansers on the skin barrier and the technology of mild cleansing. Dermatologic Therapy, 17: 16–25. 

2)  Contact Dermatitis. 1995 Oct;33(4):217-25. Surfactants and experimental irritant contact dermatitis. Effendy IMaibach HI.

3) Food Chem Toxicol. 2007 May;45(5):747-58. Epub 2006 Nov 3. Comparative studies on the ocular and dermal irritation potential of surfactants. Mehling AKleber MHensen H.

4.   Cancer Council Western Australia website: stance on SLS,SLES, and cancer myths.

Posted by on May 30th, 2013 in Skincare | 5comments


5 Responses to “Sulphate Free Is The New Soap Free (And Other Thoughts)”

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