Label Lessons 101: Surfactants (Repost)

Courtney Miller

If you know to look at labels on household and body care products, you know of at least one ingredient to stay away from – a surfactant called sodium laurel sulfate (SLS). Surfactants are marvels of modern chemistry, because they solve the age-old salad dressing problem – the impossibility of adequately mixing oil and water. One end of a surfactant molecule attracts water and one end attracts oils. This unique molecular make-up pulls the oils off of a surface, suspends them within bubbles of water, and removes them with the water.

In cleaning products, surfactants are added to a water-based liquid and function to chemically break down the grime on a dirty surface, which can then be easily wiped clean. They reduce the time and energy you spend cleaning your kitchen. Basically, more surfactants = less elbow grease.

The original molecules of a surfactant are derived from an oily substance of some kind – synthetic substances like petroleum or natural ones, like coconut oil or tallow. SLS, for example, is derived from lauric acid, which is found in large quantities in both petroleum and coconuts.  These original oil-based molecules are inherently hydrophobic (they attract oil and repel water), and so chemical processing adds a hydrophilic head to each molecule to make that end attract water. The processing of these original molecules, then, involves chemical exposure. And the end result is no longer a natural substance, whether the substance was derived from petroleum or from coconuts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, surfactants have negative environmental and health consequences. By design, they strip your body of its natural oils, which is why they should be avoided in body care products. Unless you clean houses for a living, your skin exposure to surfactants in cleaning products is likely to be relatively low. But surfactants can also cause eye and lung irritation, increase cell division rates, and accumulate overtime in the liver and other organs.

Here’s the rub: Because so many people are on orange alert for SLS and SLES, companies are no longer using those particular molecules. But almost every “eco-friendly” cleaning product available on the shelves of your local health food store contains some type of surfactant. Some “eco-friendly” companies, like Toms of Maine and Seventh Generation, are actively propagandizing against the “internet rumors” about SLS, claiming that the health risks are unproven and false.

Others use different but just-as-potentially-harmful surfactants. The second ingredient to water, for example, in Mrs. Meyers Countertop Spray is Laureth-23, a surfactant derived from the combination of lauryl alcohol and ethylene oxide, a petroleum agent. Laureth-23 is classified as “expected to be toxic or harmful” and a “medium human health priority” by the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List.

Many “eco-friendly” cleaning products simply and vaguely list their first ingredient as “coconut-derived surfactant,” which, given the molecular manipulation described above, should give cause for at least a yellow alarm.

What’s the alternative? Many body care products now use saponified oils (of coconut, palm kernel, tallow, and many other natural oils) instead of a surfactant. These substances act like a surfactant in that they foam up and break down oils. But they consist of a simple fatty acid bound with an alkaline substance like sodium or potassium hydroxide, rather than a petrochemical. The molecular changes are not nearly as severe and the production technique is not nearly as sophisticated as those for surfactants.

I haven’t found a product at Whole Foods that uses saponified oil instead of a coconut-derived surfactant, but I intend to make my own. I’ll let you know how it goes!