The world of sulfates

“Free from” cosmetic products are in high demand

Trends are a fascinating topic. They can be amusing and entertaining, such as looking at recurring fashion trends. Think of shoulder pads. Remember the hairstyle known as the mullet? The trends in the cosmetics industry are a little more serious. The topics of consumer safety, the environment and the disclosure of information play a major role in this.

Some trends in the cosmetics industry have long since established themselves and become the norm. Worldwide. Anti-aging, or aging gracefully, is here to stay. The elimination of plastics in products is becoming standard. Animal testing bans for cosmetic products and cosmetic ingredients have been demanded for a long time and are finally being implemented in more and more countries. Sustainability is no longer a trend, it is becoming the standard. There is no shortage of examples here. 

There are several reasons why trends emerge. People react differently to products, without this having to mean a given product is toxic. Of course, each consumer should refrain from using ingredients for which they have an intolerance. Manufacturers are constantly working on alternatives and responding to new demands. Environmental aspects are a factor when looking at emerging trends. Or society itself. What does the majority do and want? What would make me feel comfortable and safe? All of these thoughts lead to wishes and trends. 

Care products advertise themselves with tags that we are already familiar with from the food and fashion industry: “fair-trade”, “organic”, “alcohol-free” or “vegan”. What a product promises can range from being purely plant-based and biodegradable to the absence of fragrances and preservatives. This is how the clean beauty movement matches the contemporary attitudes of many consumers. However, even the term “clean beauty” leaves many consumers rather confused. Does it imply that other products and ingredients are dirty or harmful? This is not the case. But sometimes this certainty gets lost with the sheer weight of information and opinions.

What’s gone out is IN 

There are now many so-called “free from” products. In the food world, there is mainly a demand for products that are gluten-free, lactose-free, vegan, and sugar-free. In cosmetics, there are demands to eliminate silicones, parabens, microplastics and even sulfates, too. They are partly (though not entirely) understandable and justified. Which brings us back to our sulfate surfactants.

Trends such as mindfulness, environmental awareness and sustainability are feeding the need for cosmetics with pure and natural ingredients.

It is sometimes suggested that products without these ingredients are better, safer, and more sustainable. And this, if we pick out safety as an example, is just plain wrong. The products you find on the shelves for you to buy have been extensively and expertly assessed and found to be safe. And unprocessed natural products are not necessarily better than synthetic products. 

But not only have consumers become more environmentally aware in recent years, but they are also much better informed about sustainability issues. In the cosmetics sector, this means that consumers are scrutinizing ingredients, companies’ sustainability strategies have become part of the purchasing decision and, in addition to their own needs, consumers are also focusing more on nature and the environment. 

In principle, these are all positive phenomena. Unfortunately, with ever more information sources available, misunderstandings and misinformation are also becoming more common. Whether due to ignorance or the manipulation of opinions – in many cases, the result is: uncertainty. Doubts about whether to use an ingredient. Fear of the chemical industry and its products.

No Poo – better without

Of course, we recommend using shampoo and related products for appropriate care, but using more shampoo does not necessarily mean better results.

More information

It’s complicated 

Honestly, who ever sat down and read a scientific article about a particular ingredient from end to end? One with test setups, formulae and technical terms. It is for specialists. Ultimately, it is the specialist knowledge that leads to a reliable assessment. So trust in expertise plays a major role in choosing cosmetic ingredients. 

Scientific studies need to consider laboratory and test conditions. The volume tested, the duration of contact and the conditions of application all have a major influence on observations. Ranking and interpreting them in the right context is a task for experts and professionals. Bloggers, journalists and influencers are not usually in a position to do this. No need to be ashamed, but not everything that is shared on social media is reliable. 

Which really brings us right back to our sulfate surfactants. These substances that stir up foam – in a positive sense – are problem solvers that don't give dirt and grease a chance. Sulfate surfactants have been used in cosmetic formulations since back in the 1930s. In addition to outstanding cleaning and foaming properties, sulfate surfactants have been proven to be safe in use. They are harmless to humans and the environment when used for their intended purpose and in line with specifications. This is where the dose is important, and it is also where the first misunderstandings lie. More information about “The dose makes the poison”.

Safety is the top priority 

There are numerous scientific publications that look into the topic of sulfate surfactants. In particular, the two sulfate surfactants sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) which have been and still are closely observed. Through the publication of its safety assessment in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology, the CIR panel of experts confirmed that sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium lauryl ether sulfate are safe when used in cosmetic products under normal application conditions.

CIR: What is that?

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) is an expert panel established in 1976 by a chemical industry organization (now the Personal Care Product Council) and is backed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Federation of America. The CIR emphasizes its independence from the chemical industry when assessing the safety of cosmetic ingredients, which is guaranteed by its membership. The expert committee has a rotating membership. Members are selected based on scientific qualifications, in-depth expertise in areas relevant to the CIR, a balance of specializations (e.g. dermatology, toxicology) and the absence of any conflicts of interest. Each year, a certain number of ingredients used in cosmetic products are reviewed and discussed by the expert panel. SLS and SLES have been reviewed several times and assessed as non-critical.

How does the CIR reach this conclusion, given that pure SLS and SLES irritate skin and eyes? 

Clearly: This irritation is related to higher concentrations of the product and longer contact periods than you will find in personal care cleansing. A shower gel is rinsed off as much as possible and contains additional ingredients that ensure it is as mild as necessary. If you accidentally get shampoo in your eyes, you usually rinse it out very quickly. This brings us back to the point we made about doses and poison. It is worth noting that factors like the condition and state of the skin, and age can also play a role in skin compatibility. 

Comparing with food again: For some people eating nuts represents a danger. However, many other people love nuts and some diets even need them. Generalizing does not help. Allergies and intolerances should be considered at a personal level. Manufacturers and developers are constantly working to improve choices and general skin tolerance by using different ingredients. To be sure about what you are consuming, check the INCI list and find the right product for you. 

Back to our sulfate surfactants. The reputation of these surfactants was tarnished back in the 1990s. When the first misunderstandings arose about the safety of sodium lauryl sulfate, the good reputation of these problem-solvers plummeted. There were suspicions that these surfactants caused dry and brittle hair. They were perceived as harsh, irritating and toxic ingredients. Scientific work was misinterpreted and information was widely published with statements that were not backed up by any scientific proof. A good overview and correct conclusions can be found in “Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products” in “The National Center for Biotechnology Information.”

BASF expertise

At the same time, the search for alternatives and other solutions began. Shampoo should cleanse – with or without SLS and SLES – and foam if possible. The first products without sulfate surfactants became available about 20 years ago in the US, and later in Europe. As different trends and beliefs emerge, products with and without sulfates coexist. 

BASF’s expertise spans both options: Our researchers and experts are constantly analyzing trends and what consumers want. They are pioneers in the development of new formulations and assisting manufacturers on all issues relating to applications. If a formulation with SLS is too harsh for some, then a new preparation or combination of different surfactants will provide the necessary mildness. Sulfates are part of the choice.

And rest assured: Our products do not compromise on quality in cosmetics, nor on safety, efficacy or how the skin and hair feel during and after use.