What Is Sulfate Used For?

Sulfate is a salt that forms when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical.
Sulfate is a salt that forms when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical.

Sulfate is a salt that forms when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical. It’s a broad term used to describe the two main synthetic sulfate-based chemicals, namely, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). They are produced from petroleum and plant sources such as coconut and palm oil. They are usually found in cleaning products and personal care products such as shampoos and have been used in these products since the 1930s. Sulfates can attract both oil and water. Because of this property, they can stick to water and oil/dirt, lifting them off hair, skin, and surfaces. Sulfates act as surfactants or agents that reduce the surface tension of liquids such as oil and water, allowing them to spread more easily. The main use of SLS and SLES is to create lather and remove oil and dirt. The lather also gives an impression of stronger cleaning power.

Where are sulfates found?

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are most commonly found in the following products (the percentage of these compounds in the product depends on the manufacturer and can vary from 0.5% up to 50%):

  • Liquid soap
  • Detergents (laundry and dishes)
  • Shampoos
  • Toothpaste
  • Bath bombs

Naturally occurring sulfites are present in the following:

  • Drinking water, improving their taste
  • Fertilizers
  • Pesticides
  • Fungicides

Are sulfates safe?

There is no evidence of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) being associated with cancer, infertility, developmental abnormalities, and other diseases; hence, sulfates aren’t particularly unsafe or dangerous. However, in recent times, there has been a lot of controversy over sulfate products because of their impact on the skin, hair, and environment. The compounds may slowly build up in the body with prolonged use, but the amount is usually minimal and does not cause any serious health problems.

The risks of using products with SLS and SLES include:

  • Using products with SLS and SLES causes irritation to the skin, eyes, mouth, and lungs.
  • It causes clogged pores and acne in people with sensitive skin.
  • Dull, dry, and damaged hair because sulfate compounds strip away natural oils from the hair.
  • It causes an allergic reaction, in which case the products containing these products should be avoided.
  • Sulfate compounds negatively impact the environment. Sulfate compounds are made from palm oil, for which tropical rainforests are destroyed for palm tree plantations. Sulfate products that get washed down the drain can be toxic to animals. 
  • Sulfates are also derived from petroleum. Petroleum products are associated with climate change, pollution, and greenhouse gases. 
  • Sulfate products are tested on animals to determine the appropriate percentage to be used in human products. These compounds can have serious side effects on animals, causing skin, eye, and lung damage. 

Should you stop using sulfate products?

Going sulfate-free depends on the individuals. Those who have worrisome side effects due to sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) in their cleaning and personal care products may opt for sulfate-free products. Additionally, how sulfate affects the skin and hair often depends on the brand and manufacturer because all sources are not the same. The lather created by sulfate products gives a clean feeling, but sulfate-free products can also effectively clean the skin and hair. Sulfate-free products are also better for the environment. Sulfate-free products are generally priced higher as well. Hence, if it’s convenient for the individual, they can try switching to sulfate-free products.


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