Reading a cleaning product label often feels like cracking a code. The ingredient list consists of chemicals that many of us can’t identify, let alone pronounce, and the thought of researching them all is daunting.

However, removing dirt from clothing, dishes and our household surfaces is an important part of daily life, so it’s important to know what you’re really coming into contact with. Many cleaning and personal-care products, from detergents to toothpaste use surfactants to unlock their cleaning action. When used with water surfactants foam and give a product the ability to remove dirt.

One surfactant that helps products clean in this way is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS).

Another ingredient with a confusingly similar name: Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES) is also found in cleaning products. You may also see it simply called Sodium Laureth Sulfate, with “Laureth” serving as a contraction for the words “Lauryl” and “Ether.” Like SLS, SLES is used for its emulsifying abilities and serves as a super-effective detergent and cleaner.

While the names of these two cleaning agents and their functions may seem interchangeable, there is a distinction between the two — and a reason why you should opt for products that use SLES over those that use SLS.

The Key Difference

SLS is well-known as a skin irritant when left on the skin for prolonged periods of time and can lead to cracked, dry and tender skin. In recent years, it has picked up a considerable amount of attention across the internet with rumors of it being linked to cancer, however, there has been no evidence that SLS is linked to this in any way.

On the other hand, SLES does the same cleaning and emulsifying job but is far less likely to aggravate your skin (phew!). SLES is much gentler and doesn’t strip the epidermis of any excess moisture, leaving it feeling soft, smooth and nourished.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is actually the parent chemical that is modified to make Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). It’s created through a process called ethoxylation (in which ethylene oxide is introduced) changing the makeup of the compound. This process is key because it turns SLES into a safer, less harsh chemical than its predecessor.

Boulder Clean formulates our laundry detergent and liquid dish soap using SLES and other biodegradable ingredients that won’t harm you or the environment. We prioritize safer chemistry to create products that are powerful yet incredibly gentle on the skin — all certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, Boulder Clean has been awarded the EPA’s Safer Choice Partner of Year, three years in a row (2016, 2017, 2018).