Hair Care

By Danielle Belopotosky

Is your scalp irritated? Grab your shampoo bottle and let’s get to the root of the problem. Because a common ingredient found in many shampoos, soaps, toothpastes and detergents is also a known irritant.

Sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, is a synthetic agent that, depending on its concentration, can penetrate the skin and it could be the culprit if you develop rough rashes, redness, or itchiness on your head. It dries the skin, stripping the skin’s surface of its protective lipids. SLS is also the bubbling agent found in these products.

We tend to associate bubbles with cleanliness. “It is a fallacy that you need to have foaming bubbles to get it clean,” said Dr. Ron Shelton, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. Dr. Shelton is a board-certified dermatologist and is certified in dermatologic cosmetic surgery by The American Board of Cosmetic Surgery.

It’s also important to note the difference between an allergen and an irritant. People can develop allergies to something, said Dr. Shelton, and they must be avoided, regardless of concentration. An irritant is a chemical, and depending on the concentration, being exposed may or may not cause a reaction.


8 oz: Water, Sodium Laureth Sulfat

Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Cocamide MEA

Lauryl Glucoside


Cetyl Triethylmonium-Dimethicone-Copolyol Phthalate

Vitamin B5, Dimethicone Copolyol


Propylene Glycol

Maiden Hair Fern Extract

Polygonum Multiflorum Extract (a.k.a. Ho Shou Wu)

Vitamin E Acetate

Vitamin A Palmitate

Chamomile Extract

Rosemary Extract

Yarrow Extract

Lemongrass Extract



Citric Acid

Most manufacturers list ingredients on the labels. If SLS is one of the first ingredients, it will have a higher concentration. If it’s lower on the list, you might be better off, said Dr. Shelton. If the skin is irritated, find products where SLS is listed lower (less concentrated) or SLS-free.

But SLS isn’t the only common irritant found in shampoos. Triethanolamine (TEA) and diethanolamine (DEA) are often on labels as compounds, such as TEA-Sodium lauryl sulfate.

Look for alternatives. Sodium laureth sulfate, oletin sulfate, and decyl glucoside are gentler. Take extra precaution with babies and children. A recent study out of the University of Georgia Medial College indicated that “SLS penetration into the eyes…showed long-term retention in tissues.”

I’ve read, but never tried, that adding antioxidants, such as Vitamins A or C (powder form) to shampoos with TEA or DEA can neutralize the irritants. Look for products made with herbs, coconut oil and natural ingredients. Aveda, Aubrey Organics, and Kiss My Face offer SLS-free products. Try brands that are carried at health food stores.

If soaps, shampoos, toothpastes or detergents irritate your skin, it’s best to consult a dermatologist. It’s important to read the label of any product, because what you don’t know could harm you.

Originally published April 2004
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