The Honest Company's Trouble with Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

The Honest Company, which describes itself as a safer consumer goods company, has raised safety concerns around the chemical sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a common ingredient in household cleaners and detergents. The Honest Company pledged to never use SLS in any of its products and would use sodium coco sulfate (SCS) instead. 

In the spring of 2016, the Wall Street Journal published an article in which independent laboratory testing detected significant levels of SLS in The Honest Company’s liquid laundry detergent. Through one simple analytical test, the credibility of The Honest Company was compromised.

By taking a deeper dive into the ingredients in question, it is possible to determine how SLS could have made its way into The Honest Company’s detergent. Both SLS and SCS are surfactants, chemicals that help remove stains and provide lather. Consumer advocacy groups have raised concerns about SLS, based on worries it can strip skin of essential oils, and cause dryness and irritation. SCS, derived from coconut oil, has been suggested as a gentler replacement for SLS. However, upon close examination of the manufacturing of these chemicals, it becomes apparent that SCS and SLS are not entirely different.

Sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) is made via a series of chemical reactions using the starting material lauric acid, pictured below.     

In a similar process, sodium coco sulfate (SCS) is synthesized through the same reactions, using coconut oil as a starting material. However, coconut oil is not just one chemical, but a mixture of many. The predominant chemical in coconut oil is lauric acid, the same starting material for the synthesis of SLS.

While sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium coco sulfate are two different ingredients, a review of the chemical manufacturing shows that sodium coco sulfate contains high quantities of sodium lauryl sulfate.

The Honest Company has maintained that their detergents contain no sodium lauryl sulfate and have disputed the Wall Street Journal’s findings. However, they have also recently reformulated all their detergents to no longer use sodium coco sulfate.

The relationship between consumer products and chemicals has changed dramatically in the past several years, driven by both consumer pressure and emerging scientific data. Brands operating in the personal care space must provide factual scientific information while communicating it in clear and understandable ways. More importantly, brands must themselves have a grasp of fundamental scientific concepts to ensure their claims are backed by scientific testing, not refuted by it.