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The Multifunctional Uses of Sodium Laureth Sulfate as a Surfactant
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The Multifunctional Uses of Sodium Laureth Sulfate as a Surfactant

What Is Sodium Laureth Sulfate?

The Multifunctional Uses of Sodium Laureth Sulfate as a Surfactant

Sodium laureth sulfate, also known as sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES), is an anionic surfactant commonly found in personal care products like shampoos, body washes, and toothpaste. It is derived from ethoxylation of lauryl alcohol, obtaining a polyethylene glycol (PEG) ether. SLES is widely used in various industries for its cleaning and foaming properties.

Unlike the more intense and harsh sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), SLES is considered to have a milder effect on the skin and mucous membranes. As a result, it is widely preferred in cosmetic formulations due to its cleansing, emulsifying, and foaming properties.

Synthesis of Sodium Laureth Sulfate

The synthesis of SLES involves a reaction between lauryl alcohol and ethylene oxide. Lauryl alcohol, derived from natural sources such as coconut or palm kernel oil, is treated with ethylene oxide in the presence of a catalyst, typically sodium hydroxide or sulfuric acid.

This process, known as ethoxylation, replaces the hydrogen atom in the alcohol molecule with an ethoxy group (-OCH2CH2-), forming a polyethylene glycol ether. The resulting product is sodium laureth sulfate, which can then be further processed and purified for various applications.

Applications of Sodium Laureth Sulfate

SLES finds numerous applications across different industries, primarily due to its excellent surfactant properties. Let's explore some of its key uses:

Personal Care Products

As mentioned earlier, SLES is a common ingredient in shampoos, body washes, soaps, and toothpaste. Its ability to create a rich lather, remove oil and dirt, and emulsify other ingredients makes it an essential component in these products.

Modification of SLES-based body wash with marine collagen.Modification of SLES-based body wash with marine collagen. [1]

Cleaning Products

SLES is commonly found in household cleaning product formulations, such as dishwashing liquids, laundry detergents, and all-purpose cleaners. Its surfactant properties help break down grease and stains, allowing for effective cleaning.

Industrial Applications

SLES is used in various industrial settings as a surfactant and emulsifying agent. It is used in manufacturing processes, metal cleaning, and textile industries.


SLES can be used as an ingredient in agrochemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, to improve their spreading and wetting properties.

Pharmaceutical Products

SLES is used in some pharmaceutical products, including oral and topical medications. It helps in the rapid dissolution and absorption of the active ingredients.

Environmental Restoration Potential

Studies have shown that SLES can remove harmful dyes from dye wastewater by forming complexes with cationic phenothiazine dyes (o-toluidine blue).

Toluidine blue-SLES complexes.Toluidine blue-SLES complexes. [2]

Sodium Laureth Sulfate VS Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

SLES and SLS are both surfactants commonly used in personal care and cleaning products. However, there are some differences between the two.

The Multifunctional Uses of Sodium Laureth Sulfate as a Surfactant

Skin Irritation

  • SLS has a higher potential to cause skin irritation, especially for people with sensitive skin. It can strip the skin of its natural oils and may contribute to dryness or inflammation.
  • SLES, due to its ethoxylation process, is considered less irritating to the skin compared to SLS.

Toxicity and Safety

  • Both SLES and SLS are considered safe for use in cosmetic and cleaning products when used in appropriate concentrations and formulations. The concentration and exposure time are crucial factors in determining their potential for irritation or toxic effects.
  • There have been some concerns about the potential for SLS to be contaminated with a carcinogenic byproduct called 1,4-dioxane. However, industry standards and regulations require purification techniques to minimize this contamination.


  1. Klimaszewska E, et al. Journal of Surfactants and Detergents, 2019, 22(6), 1469-1475.
  2. Leo F.W. Vleugels, et al. Dyes and Pigments, 2017, 141, 420-427.

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