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Making Bubbles

13th December 2011

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Sodium Laurel Sulphate is used in all high street shampoos, but how bad is it really for our planet? Rose Bewick investigates.

BubblesI recently decided to become a bit more responsible when it comes to shopping. Simple at first: local fruit, veg and meat, and Fairtrade tea and coffee... but what to do about shampoo and shower gel?

There are certainly plenty of organic bathroom products out there. Even a great deal of locally made ones can be found when you know where to look. But I like having clean hair, and I worry about whether something made entirely of lavender will actually do the job. It's not just the lack of chemicals that has me worried, but also the massive price difference: why is organic shampoo so much more expensive?

It’s because Herbal Essences and other not-so-ethical shampoos have Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) in them. This chemical is essentially a degreasing agent, and it’s what makes all those bubbles. As it is mass produced for the big companies, they can buy it very cheaply.

SLS started life as an industrial cleaning agent, meant for garage floors, and there are those who insist it is harmful to skin.  A study at the Medical College of Georgia found that  “SLS penetrated into the eyes as well as brain, heart, liver, etc., and showed long-term retention in the tissues.” Furthermore, it “penetrated young children’s eyes and prevented them from developing properly and caused cataracts to develop.”  Such arguments focus around the uncomfortable word ‘corrosion’. However, it is important to consider here that by maintaining that the chemical is dangerous, some organic companies were then able to sell more products (at a dearer price) on the basis that they are “SLS-free!”

This said, it was in an article from TreeHugger website that I was assured that “no evidence in the literature has ever been found directly linking SLS to cancer”.  The advice is generally that it’s not that bad, but don't frolic in the bath too much. While Judi Vance in her book 'Beauty To Die For' lists the slightly scary effects of SLS use, including development of cataracts, flaky skin and loss of hair, the fact is that there probably isn't enough of it in our bathroom products to cause these symptoms. I’m tempted to conclude that well, it hasn’t harmed me yet, and I have by no means been sheltered from it. My shampoos, shower gels, soaps and face wipes all contain it. Even Lush, Body Shop and Ecover products do.

The bigger disincentive for me is the more straightforward one: that of deforestation, the clearing of huge amounts of forests and woodlands to make way for plantations of oil palm from which SLS is made. This process involves burning the “waste forest” which produces large amounts of greenhouse gases and thus contributes to global warming. Indonesia was named in the 2008 Guinness Book of Records the country with the fastest rate of deforestation, a practice which has made it the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. This forest is then lost for good, and with it we lose irreplaceable plants and animals and their habitats...all for a bar of soap.

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