Surfactants are Surface Area Cleaners. They work by binding to the dirt and bacteria on the skin’s surface that is attached to oil. The dirt and debris not mixed with oil is actually rinsed away with water alone. Since oil and water do not mix, any dirt attached to oil needs a little extra motivation to leave the skin’s surface (or in the case of shampoo, the hair.) Surfactants work by breaking up the oil attached to dirt so that everything rinses clean. Many surfactants also act as saponifiers, or lathering agents.
A good lather certainly makes you feel like your getting clean, but its not needed in everything. For certain skin conditions, too much lather may not be a good thing. That’s why I often recommend a cleansing oil or non-foaming cleanser to be used with a clean wash cloth.
The most common surfactant used in skin and body care products is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, or SLS for short. Sodium Lauryl sulfate, also known as Sodium Laureth Sulfate is best avoided whenever possible in skin and body care products. (Propylene Glycol is another to avoid – if we’re being picky.) Since SLS dissolves grease and oil, when used on human skin it can have a drying effect. Not to mention that SLS is a known irritant and has been known to make skin irritation worse in dermatitis and Eczema.For more information on SLS, read our post: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: Ingredient to Avoid.
So exactly what is SLS found in? I thought you’d never ask…here is the short list:
Why is SLS used so frequently? It’s cheap! This is why we say you get what you pay for in skincare products. The natural saponifiers and soaps are more expensive because they are higher quality. Therefore, you may be paying a bit more for a natural, gentler product…but it’s worth every extra penny.
There are many different options for substituting SLS in your favorite products. Here are two of the most common:
Castor oil or vegetable oils saponified potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide: Found in Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soaps
Sodium cocosulfate made from coconut oil: Found in Sanitas, Malie, and Mrs. Meyer’s