Shay is a beauty blogger with a mass of Iranian hair and endless patience for product testing. She specializes in acne skincare.
A Road to Better Skin
I have sensitive skin. I've discovered that my skin responds best to a simplified, streamlined routine, with minimal products and minimal ingredients. A tenant of good skincare is to avoid known irritating products, and sulfates (such as sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS) are known irritants.
I created this guide to share the sulfate-free products that I love, which have helped improve the tone and clarity of my skin. In this guide, I'll be giving product suggestions for face wash, shampoo, toothpaste, body wash, and hand soap, all of which are sulfate-free.
But First: What Are Sulfates?
Not to be confused with "sulfites" (the stuff that's found in red wine), "sulfates" refers to a family of cheap detergents used in soaps and other personal products as a grease cutting or lathering agent. Sulfates are commonly found in shampoo, toothpaste, face wash, and liquid soaps as "sodium lauryl sulfate" or "sodium laureth sulfate," often shortened to SLS or SLES. They are what give these products that bubbly feel.
Skin Irritation, Acne, and Perioral Dermatitis
About a year ago, I discovered a red rash on my face that was not going away. It was localized to the area around my mouth, and it was stubborn. Unlike the acne on other parts of my face and other parts of my chin, these little red bumps would show up in the exact same area, and they were not going away. Some days they'd be red, some days they'd be red and flakey, and some days they'd disappear completely, but they always came back. I've also had a reoccuring mild rash around the sides of my nose since I was a kid.
I did a little research and discovered this mysterious "chin/nose rash" was likely perioral dermatitis. Perioral dermatitis (POD) manifests as a fine red rash around the mouth, chin, sides of the nostrils (nasolabial fold), and/or eyes. It is often goes hand-in-hand with itchiness and dry flakes, making it very difficult to cover with makeup. POD is often confused with acne, rosacea, and other kinds of dermatitis.
After a little more research, I discovered that the ingredients in my face wash could be causing irritation on my face. I learned that an incredibly common ingredient, sodium lauryl sulfate, was a likely culprit.
Step 1: Sulfate Free Face Wash
My first step into the world of sulfate-free products was via face wash. I had cast a side-eye on many of my other skincare products, from acne medications to sunscreen, long before I ever suspected my "sensitive skin" or "acne" face washes could be irritating my skin. As it turns out, most mainstream face washes (from inexpensive Cetaphil to expensive Dermalogica) contain sulfates. I realized that I had been putting a known irritant directly onto irritated skin for over a decade. (Doh!)
So, I took to the Internet and researched all the SLS-free face washes out there. Let me tell you, there aren't many of them. I almost gave up and shelled out big bugs for a fancy pants brand, when I came across an amazing article. This blogger was telling her readers that she knew of a big name, high end skincare brand that was partnering with a big grocery chain to create an inexpensive, but high quality face wash. A dermatologist had taken their brand's $50-a-bottle face wash, and improved and repackaged it with a $6 price tag.
The grocery chain in question is none other than Trader Joes, the product is their All-In-One Facial Cleanser. I recommended this face wash to every woman with a face and ears. My best friend and I were both hooked.
Unfortunately, Trader Joe's changed the formula; the cleanser now contains sulfates. Although it's still a high quality product, for a low price, if you're sensitive to sulfates, it's no longer a safe choice. I've tested about a dozen products since then, and nothing has worked.
So what's someone with super finicky skin supposed to do when no cleanser is tolerable? I started dabbling cleansing alternatives. I now wash my face almost exclusively with plain water and a washcloth. On days when that's not enough, I use a microfiber cloth. Yup, that's it. It's seriously the best cleanser I've ever used.
Step 2: Sulfate-Free Shampoo
(I'm a Poet and I Didn't Even Know It!)
Next up on my sulfate-free journey was logical. I want to keep sulfates off my face; what other product could possibly be contaminating it? I looked no further than the stuff I'm putting slightly north of my face: my hair. Think about it, how easy is it to wash your hair and not get even the tiniest bit of shampoo on your face? I also have bangs (aka fringe to those across the pond), and I often wash my bangs alone without washing the rest of the hair on my head. This usually results in all kinds of shampoo on my forehead and face.
Luckily, sulfate free shampoos are among the easiest products to find. Big brands such as L'Oreal, Aveeno, and Tresemme offer SLS free or SLS reduced shampoos, not so much because their worried about sensitive skin, but because they're worried about fading hair color. This ingredient is not only a known irritant, they're also really good at removing that expensive dye you have in your hair.
I've used Kirkland's Kirkland Sulfate Free Shampoo in the past (pictured above; get it from Costco), but my current sulfate free shampoo choice is Jason's Fragrance Free Shampoo. I've gone through about 5 huge bottles of this stuff, and it causes zero skin problems.
Step 3: Sulfate-Free Toothpaste
You might be wondering two things here: 1) Why on earth does toothpaste contain sulfates and 2) Why on earth do you care about having sulfates in your toothpaste?
- SLS is what gives soaps and other products that nice rich lather, and since a lot of folks have come to associate all that bubbly-ness from toothpaste with a fresh clean mouth, toothpaste makers find it necessary to add the stuff.
- If you have skin that is sensitive to sulfates, you will almost certainly want a sulfate free toothpaste as well. It's easy to get a bit of the froth runoff from your toothbrushing session onto the skin around your mouth. If you're a drooler, brushing your teeth right before bed can result in some SLS dribbling on down your face. For those with perioral dermatitis, this can be a recipe for disaster. Additionally, sulfates may cause or irritate canker sores.
Now, finding a SLS-free toothpaste proved to be a bit more challenging than finding a SLS free face wash or SLS free shampoo. Big brands Colgate and Crest do not make sulfate free toothpastes; even some so called "natural" brands (like Toms of Maine) contain sulfates. There are a few smaller brands, however, that fit the bill, including Sensodyne, CloSYS, Jason (fluoride free formula only), Verve Ultra, and Biotene. My choice was Sensodyne ProNamel, Gentle Whitening.
Step 4: Sulfate Free Body Wash
I haven't made the leap yet to SLS-free body wash, but once I run out of my current Dove* stockpile, I'll be making the switch. While it is unlikely that I'll get any body wash on my face, I do get irritation and acne on my chest and back fairly regularly. I figure that there is a chance that the SLS in my Dove body wash could be causing problems as well, and it makes it worth it for me to switch.
I've already got my eye on Costco's Kirkland brand body wash (if you don't have a Costco membership, you can buy it on Amazon via the link below). There are a few other brands that offer Sulfate Free body washes and beauty bars as well including Alba, Burts Beets, and Dr. Bronners.
Step 5: Sulfate Free Hand Soap
The last item on my sulfate free bucket list is hand soap. A girl's gotta dream, right? I've got enough Softsoap to choke a horse with, so I won't be able to make the switch for awhile, but I do want to give it a shot. You might ask, why is SLS-free hand soap important?
I figure I've got problem skin. I tend to touch my face many times each day (it's a tough habit to break guys!). I also wash my hands many times each day, so I could be inadvertently getting sulfates on my face via my hands.
Regardless of my situation, I know that there are thousands of people that suffer from chronically dry hands, Eczema, Psoriasis, and other painful, itchy skin conditions of the hands. Hand soaps that contain SLS could easily aggrevate these conditions.
The following brands make sulfate free hand soap: Nature's Gate, Aterra, Jason, and Trader Joe's.
A Classic Choice
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Question: Are Aveeno face products SLS-free?
Answer: It depends on the product. If it foams, probably not.
Question: Have you found a sulfate free moisturizer?
Answer: Sulfates are what make products sudsy (bubble up); I've never heard of a moisturizer WITH sulfates. Therefore, I'd wager just about any moisturizer available will be sulfate free!
© 2014 Shay Marie
nikita on May 10, 2019:
Can Bath products like Bath bombs be made without SLS? will it not foam as well?
Cici on April 19, 2019:
Thank you so much for this, I’m already heading to Costco tomorrow to purchase the body wash you recommended because I’m SO tired of using organically milled soap.
I will say though, Sensodyne is amazing and the only toothpaste I can use but ProNamel (sp?) as much as I wanted to be a fan because it didn’t list SLS, still gave me a reaction so beware!
Also, Myers Clean Day products are my favorite for hand soap. Best smelling products ever and sooooo hypoallergenic
sathya on March 01, 2018:
you should check Himalaya Herbals brand who has the products free of sls and parabens and they are herbal too...
Shay Marie (author) from Southern California on May 11, 2017:
@Mrinal SLS and SLES are surfactants, meaning they foam -- so it's very unlikely that a body lotion or cream is going to have them.
Mrinal on May 11, 2017:
Hello i want to ask something! Do body lotion or creams, or any such things also contain SLSandSLES?
Glenda on March 18, 2017:
Hate to tell you but Cere ve cream has SLS in it. See below. I recently discovered (after 45 yrs) that my blood shot and painful eye problem is probably caused by SLS in shampoo. Since changing to a rather expensive but hypoallergenic shampoo, my problem seems to have disappeared. It's worth the money. I also found using Pronamel solved my mouth problem. Canker sores were almost a chronic problem. I've also changed to a hypoallergenic laundry product and haven't used fabric softener for years. All of these changes have helped immensely.
Katie on February 27, 2017:
I use Cere Ve products. I love the hydrating cleanser because there isn't anything in it that'
Shay Marie (author) from Southern California on December 07, 2016:
@tkends - The trader joe's face wash has surfactants, not sulfates. SLS and SLES can be harsher than some of these surfactant alternatives. A lot of people are sensitive to surfactants in general though, in which case a non-foaming cleanser would be a better option.
tkends on December 07, 2016:
dude... the trader joe's face wash HAS sulfates, like Sodium Cocoyl Glutamante. rescind your recommendation please.
Hd on November 23, 2016:
In addition to sulfate free toothpaste try a fluoride free toothpaste as fluoride can also trigger perioral dermatitis
Norma on September 20, 2016:
I have had acne since puberty and I am now 85 years old. Just last year a casual comment by Dr. Oz made me aware that SLS in toothpaste might be causing the canker sore around my mouth. Sure nuff. From there I tried SLS free face wash and for the first time my skin cleared up! It is hard for me to do all that checking, testing & reading fine print, so this info is very welcome!
Linda 140 on August 08, 2016:
Thank you for this information. Dermatologists even recommend Cetaphil . I am allergic to sulfa drugs and have thought I may also be sensitive to sulfates on my skin. I get a photosensitive rash from lupus and my facial skin is very sensitive. I switched to Alba shampoo and will be throwing out all my sulfate products. I am a senior so finding economical products is very important .
Rosalba on August 05, 2016:
mostly products here in the philippines have sulfates! im worried at my hair..its frizzy and dry..
viktorija mikal on February 26, 2014:
Great article! Good tips.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on February 16, 2014:
I never knew this. I have to look into what I'm using.