Is your face wash damaging your skin?


You probably have come across the terms SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) and SLeS (Sodium Laureth Sulfate) when picking out your personal care products. Simply put, they are popular anionic surfactants. We have always maintained that the * in the ingredients list of most products holds the key to what additives go in to the products you use.

At Oleum Cottage, we aren’t advocates of SLS and SLeS and that’s why you will never find them in any of our formulations. Before we hopped on to the natural skincare wagon, of course we did use products that contained these but now that we have made that #switchforgood, we are never going to go that way.

Did you know sulphates were discovered sometime in the middle of the twentieth century by scientists who stumbled upon these compounds while looking for hygiene elements for soldiers during the world war. Being surfactants, they helped clean dirt and grime with no traces, and were convenient to formulate with. Of course, the biggest factor was the decidedly lower cost at which they could be manufactured at scale. Compared to handmade soaps and earlier versions of surfactants that were plant oil derived, these were mostly petroleum derived. Gradually, the surfactants took over and became a large industry in itself becoming a part of endless bottles of liquid detergents, utensil cleaners, shampoos, body washes, face washes, kids washes and toothpastes, becoming an invention almost as popular as the bread in our kitchens.

We believe that discoveries based on human need are what makes our race progress and thrive. But sometimes we forget that convenience comes at a cost. We forget to ask what is the price we are paying for that convenience. And the surfactant came with its price too.

Why are sulphates considered harmful

SLS and SLeS work by reducing surface tension in water and foaming up all the dirt from your skin or scalp, making them easy to wash off. All very well but what about the natural lipids on our skin? Those that host the healthy biome and makes an armour for us to fight pathogens. Research shows that Sulphates are known to wash off those lipids as well, and with continued usage, it increases imbalances in skin, common symptoms being dryness in skin and oiliness in scalp (while trying to compensate the stripping of sebum).

They are known to irritate skin due to which several regulatory bodies have put a cap on the usage by weight (percentage) of sulphates in a formulation. The other alarming piece of information is that alternate methods in which they are used in your face wash, which lowers the pH to what is considered safe for skin but that doesn't alter the way they function.

Chemical alternatives to sulphates

Coming to the more recent times, there has been a revolution against sulphates, sometimes using a bit of a stretched imagination. Sulphates became the scapegoats on whose poor reputation the new industry of green-washed formulations sprang up. ‘Sulphate free’ has become a marketing buzz word in our times. But the question we forget to ask is what are we using to replace them?

Some like Sodium Coco Sulphate are approved by most certification bodies, and they are indeed milder than SLS, however they are very similar because they are made in the same way. While Sodium Lauryl Sulphate is the sodium salt of Lauric acid treated with Sulphuric acid, Sodium Coco Sulphate is the sodium salt of all fatty acids in coconut oil (50% of which are Lauric acid) treated with sulphuric acid. Another surfactant considered milder than SLS is Ammonium Laureth Sulphate that doesn’t penetrate skin as much, being larger in molecular size. Then there are other surfactants like Sarcosines and Sulfosuccinates, that inspite of not having ‘sulphate’ in their names, can be almost as strong, being anionic surfactants. Other cationic, nonionic and amphoteric surfactants by virtue of their composition are milder.

These commonly used alternatives to sulphates have varying degrees of cleaning and foaming capacity, so more often than not, two or more of them are used to create a formulation that gives users the same squeaky clean feel they’re so used to. Most of these non-sulphate surfactants are also certified natural by international bodies.

Natural alternatives to sulphates

Now coming to formulators like ourselves, who wish to create a face wash with no chemical surfactants, not just sulphates but none at all. We were aware that we would have to educate our users a lot on science and history, since we were caught on the wrong side of the marketing wave, trying to bring back ‘soaps’ and ‘oils’. Options for us included the following and we have a formulation wish list of those we haven’t ticked yet:

  1. Soaps that are made from scratch from cold pressed oils, reacting with potassium hydroxide from natural sources (that reacts with the oils to make soap and glycerin), those having additional skin healing herbs and being naturally cured. This similar to the lengthy process in which African Black Soap is made, one that we use to formulate our Mesmerising African Black Cleansing Potion.
  2. Oil cleansing, the ancient method of using oils and butters to cleanse and moisturise at one go. Our Pollution Defense Cleansing Gel is formulated on this principle, as a first layer deep cleanser plus makeup remover.
  3. Plant based soap nuts and soap berries like sapindus, soapwort, soap bark, and ivy agave.
  4. Herbs and grains that when dried and powdered, can be used like a cleansing face mask with water. The Ayurvedic system of healing has many ancient formulations in this.
  5. Clays from different parts of the world used as face masks.

What can you do to replace sulphates from your face wash?

If you are a consumer who has already crossed the bridge of skipping sulphates, (which by the way we strongly recommend), we’d ask you to go one step further and look closely at the entire ingredient list of a face wash you pick up. Try and identify the cleansing agent in there. There could be multiple ones like we mentioned before, primary and secondary surfactants. Please exercise caution here and do not get alarmed by every chemical sounding name. Surfactants have other uses like say as emulsifiers but here they’re used in very small percentages.

Or if you’re like us and don’t want to take a chance, go back to basics and give our double cleansing set (Pollution Defense Cleansing Gel and Mesmerising African Black Cleansing Potion) a try. If you have questions on the ingredient list, and we hope you do, we are a message away.


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