Sulfates. It’s a term you probably hear often. Sulfates are surfactant ingredients commonly found in personal care formulations with great foaming and cleansing abilities. So, what’s the problem? These ingredients can cause more harm than good, especially to skin. The good news? There are clean ingredient options that can outperform and replace them. Let’s delve further in…
First, let’s start with surfactants. Surfactants are performance ingredients that allow for the seamless blending of all types of liquids through the creation of emulsions. These emulsions can be crafted to contain the precise ingredients needed to clean virtually any surface, including human skin. In addition to keeping the cleaning ingredients working well together in a liquid formulation, surfactants have cleansing power of their own. Capable of pulling grease off hard surfaces, or pulling dirt from out of pores, surfactants are indispensable facets of any cleaning product. However, not all surfactants are created equal, and in some cases, particularly with regards to personal care formulations, surfactants may do more harm than good.1
Enter sulfates. Sulfates, such as the personal care workhorse sodium lauryl sulfate, are classified as anionic surfactants. Anionic surfactants have a negative charge that allows them to act like a magnet and help a cleansing formulation pick up dirt and soil that clings to surfaces. These surfactants are used in high concentrations in personal care formulations due to their added benefits of viscosity and rheology building as well as creating a stable, long lasting foam.2,3
Sulfates are used in large concentrations as cleansing ingredients in many personal care formulations such as body washes, hand soaps, and shampoos. The skin cleansing activity of sulfates is largely attributed to their ability to bind to oils and form emulsions with wash water. 3,4 These emulsions are quickly captured by wash water, effectively removing the oils on dirty skin.2
Sounds refreshing, right? Think again.
Sulfates have a rocky relationship with human skin. Why? A significant amount of the oils removed by washing with sulfate containing cleansing products is needed to maintain the optimal water balance for skin cells. Further, many users of sulfate-based personal cleansing products report having dry, irritated skin after chronic use. Clinical studies can explain these uncomfortable experiences with sulfate-containing cleaners. Multiple clinical research groups have found sulfates to induce the highest rate of water loss in human skin when compared to other types of anionic surfactants.5 This water loss explains the reports of dryness and this dryness can explain the irritation.
So what are the alternatives? The first major strategy to mitigate the damage sulfates cause was to use amphoteric surfactants such as betaines. This is a short-term solution, because sulfates are still used and consumers looking for “sulfate-free” products are eager for a complete replacement. Recent studies into the trace chemicals that accompany betaines may outweigh the positives, but it is a valid stop-gap strategy for formulators looking to reduce sulfates.
Another strategy is to completely replace sodium lauryl sulfate with sodium lauryl sarcosinate. Even though they both have the same SLS acronym they are very different. Sarcosinates are extremely mild and do not cause irritation or dryness like sulfates or betaines. The downsides are the cost implications of producing this semisynthetic product, along with its reduced efficacy compared to sulfates. This allows for an effective alternative, albeit one enabled by synthetic chemistry.
The good news is there are now safer, milder and more cost-effective alternatives.
A new top solution is biosurfactants. These are nature-derived and 100% bio-based alternatives to traditional surfactants. These sulfate replacements are non-toxic and free from GMO’s and palm oil. The best part? They maintain or more often amplify formulation performance. A top example is Ferma™ SH Pure. This biodegradable biosurfactant is the premier alternative for sulfates in personal care formulations. Based on sophorolipids originally derived from honeybees, Ferma™ SH Pure can act as a primary or a secondary surfactant and has multiple additional benefits for use in skin care products.6,7,8
Ferma™ SH Pure is designed to foam, lather and function as a degreaser, while keeping the cleansing feeling of other produced surfactants. This might sound too good to be true, but the sophorolipid experts at Locus Performance Ingredients (Locus PI) have designed the Ferma™ S Pure line to specifically maximize performance in personal care formulations. Non-GMO Ferma™ SH Pure and Locus PI’s other customizable sophorolipid products are made in the USA and available now nationwide.
Ready to make the switch to cleaner, more mild ingredients? Contact a Locus PI expert to get started.
- Segran, Elizabeth. 2018. Fastcompany.com. June 04. Accessed December 2020. https://www.fastcompany.com/40578207/are-you-ready-to-accept-that-shampoo-is-terrible-for-your-hair.
- Shapiro, Judy. 2018. International Products Corporation. July 31. Accessed December 2020. https://www.ipcol.com/blog/an-easy-guide-to-understanding-surfactants/#:~:text=Anionic%20surfactants%20have%20a%20negative,frequently%20in%20soaps%20and%20detergents.
- Webster, Emma Sarran. 2020. Teen vogue. April 16. Accessed December 2020. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/sulfates-and-sulfate-free-beauty-products-facts.
- Ginta, Daniela. 2019. healthline.com. August 12. Accessed December 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/sulfates.
- Cara A. M. Bondi, Julia L. Marks, Lauren B. Wroblewski, Heidi S. Raatikainen, Shannon R. Lenox and Kay E. Gebhardt. 2015. “Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products.” Environmental Health Insights 27-32.
- Ito, H., M. Araki, and Y. Hirata. 2016. Low-toxicity sophorolipid-containing composition and use therefor. United States Patent US 2016/0324747 A1. November 10.
- de Oliveira, R. M., A. Magri, C. Baldo, D. Camilios-Neto, T. Minucelli, M. A. Pedrine, and C. Celligoi. 2015. “Review: Sophorolipids: A Promising Biosurfactant and its Applications.” International Journal of Advanced Biotechnology and Research 161-174.
- Lydon, H., N. Baccile, B. Callaghan, R. Marchant, C. Mitchel, and I. Banat. 2017. “Adjuvant Antibiotic Activity of Acidic Sophorolipids with Potential for Facilitating Wound Healing.” Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 1-9.