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Going Sulfate-Free

Sulfates. It’s a term you probably hear often. Sulfates are surfactant ingredients commonly found in a multitude of product 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…

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. Surfactants are indispensable facets of any cleaning product capable of pulling grease off hard surfaces and removing dirt from pores. However, not all surfactants are created equal. In some cases, particularly with regards to personal care and other consumer product formulations, surfactants may do more harm than good.1

What are Sulfates?

Sulfates, such as the personal care workhorse sodium lauryl sulfate, are a category of chemical surfactants classified as anionic.

Anionic surfactants have a negative charge that allows them to act like a magnet, helping the cleansing formulation pick up dirt and soil that clings to surfaces. Formulators often incorporate these surfactants in high concentrations in personal care formulations, because they create a stable, long lasting foam and supply desirable viscosity and rheological characteristics.2,3

Sulfates are used in large concentrations as cleansing ingredients in many personal care formulations. They are included in beauty and hair products such as:

  • body washes
  • hand soaps
  • shampoos
  • and more

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.

Why Formulators Need Sulfate-Free Surfactants

Sulfates have a rocky relationship with human skin. They can cause skin and eye irritations, such as:

  • Hives
  • Rashes
  • Corneal inflammation
  • Allergic reactions
  • Clogged pores

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 studies discuss the potential skin irritation that results from exposure to products containing these sulfate ingredients.

The oils washed away by sulfate-containing cleansing products are needed to maintain the optimal water balance in the skin cells. Clinical research groups have found sulfates 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 which can cause irritation.

Sulfate-Free Alternative Ingredients

As a first step to mitigate potential irritation or skin damage from sulfates, formulators turned to using amphoteric surfactants such as betaines. This is a short-term solution, because betaines often act as a secondary sulfate ingredient. Sulfates are still used as a primary surfactant ingredient, leaving potential for skin irritation.

Consumers who wish to avoid sulfates by looking for sulfate-free products are eager for a complete replacement. Recent studies into the trace chemicals that accompany some types of betaines may outweigh the positives. However, betaines can still act as a valid stop-gap strategy for formulators looking to reduce the use of other types of 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 other sulfates. The downsides are the cost implications of producing this semisynthetic ingredient, 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 sulfate-free ingredients.

Sulfate-Free Biosurfactants

Biosurfactants present formulators with better options for sulfate-free ingredients. They are a class of natural surfactants that are nature-derived and 100% biobased. They give formulators superior alternatives to traditional surfactants and sulfates that are non-toxic, non-GMO and free from palm oil. Biosurfactants can often maintain or even amplify formulation performance.

A top biosurfactant example is Locus Performance Ingredients’ line of globally recognized sophorolipids. These biodegradable biosurfactants are the premier alternative for sulfates in personal care, household and even industrial product formulations.

Locus PI’s sophorolipids can act as primary or secondary surfactants, supplying multiple benefits when used in applications such as skin care products.6,7,8 They are designed to foam, lather and function as a degreaser, while keeping the cleansing feeling of other produced surfactants. The customizable sophorolipid ingredients are made in the USA and available immediately to maximize performance of formulations.

Ready to make the switch to cleaner, more mild ingredients? Contact a Locus PI expert to get started.

  1. Segran, Elizabeth. 2018. June 04. Accessed December 2020.
  2. Shapiro, Judy. 2018. International Products Corporation. July 31. Accessed December 2020.,frequently%20in%20soaps%20and%20detergents.
  3. Webster, Emma Sarran. 2020. Teen vogue. April 16. Accessed December 2020.
  4. Ginta, Daniela. 2019. August 12. Accessed December 2020.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.