Soapy Bubbles

pumice soap on Flickr by dirty bunny I recently looked closer at the ingredients of my dish washing detergent and found Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) listed, not to be confused with SLS* (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate). They are both used to produce the nice soapy bubbles in cleaning and washing products.

SLES can become contaminated with (extremely small amounts of) 1,4-Dioxane [1] because 1,4-Dioxane is a by-product of the manufacture process (ethoxylation) by which SLS becomes SLES [2]. As it’s a by-product of manufacture and not intentionally added, 1,4-Dioxane isn’t listed in ingredients. The US Environmental Protection Agency considers 1,4-Dioxane to be a probable carcinogen, because it’s a known carcinogen in animals [3]. But the US Food and Drug Administration says the levels present in beauty and cleaning products aren’t hazardous (and they have been decreasing since the 1970s because of improved manufacturing processes) [2].

I wasn’t so worried about 1,4-Dioxane in my dish washing detergent (although I’m not sure if small amounts, adding up to larger amounts over time, going down the drain is a good idea). What I don’t like is SLES derived from petroleum products. I’m trying to avoid petroleum derivatives because I want to lessen my fossil fuel dependence.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics recommends avoiding these ingredients, if you’re trying to avoid 1,4-Dioxane:

  • PEG
  • polyethylene
  • polyethylene glycol
  • polyoxyethylene
  • -eth eg. ceteareth, myreth, oleth, sodium laureth sulphate (SLES)
  • oxynol

The above site says all of these are petroleum derived ingredients. I thought SLS must also be a petroleum derivative, but Tom’s of Main says SLS can be naturally derived from coconut and/or palm kernel oil. The petroleum derived SLS and SLES is cheaper and thus more likely to be used in most products, unless the label states otherwise.

Recently the Organic Consumer’s Association conducted tests on some well known organic and natural brands of soap and detergents to determine levels of 1,4-Dioxane [4]. They’re all North American brands (so I don’t use any of them) but Alba, Kiss My Face, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Jason Pure Natural & Organic, and Nature’s Gate all contained 1,4-Dioxane. All tested products certified under the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program, such as TerrEssentials, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Avalon Organics, and Sensibility Soaps (Nourish), contained no 1,4-Dioxane [5].

Back to my dish washing detergent, I assumed Earth Choice dishwashing liquid uses petroleum derived SLES because I’m sure they would promote the fact if it was naturally derived. I’m working at making my own detergent using Crazy Mumma’s Dishwashing Liquid #3 recipe. My first batch didn’t survive the hot weather so I’ll blog about it when I try the recipe again.


*note on SLS

Treehugger says Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) isn’t as bad an ingredient as others have said. Tom’s of Main discusses the specific concerns with SLS and the American Cancer Society answers the concern of SLS being carcinogenic. SLS is an irritant. That’s why you don’t want to get shampoo in your eyes, or eat it and why you don’t want to swallow too much toothpaste (although that’s also because of the fluoride and sorbitol).


  1. Black, Hurley & Havery (2001) Occurrence of 1,4-Dioxane in Cosmetic Raw Materials and Finished Cosmetic Products. Journal of AOAC International. 84(3), pp.666-670.
  2. FDA CFSAN/Office of Cosmetics and Colors (2007) 1,4-Dioxane.
  3. US Environmental Protection Agency (2000) 1,4-Dioxane (1,4-Diethyleneoxide) Hazard Summary. Created in April 1992; Revised in January 2000.
  4. Cone, Maria (2008) “Popular ‘green’ products test positive for toxicant” Los Angeles Times, 14 March.

One thought on “Soapy Bubbles

  1. Hi there, Clare Snow.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write your interesting article. We are deeply appreciative of your dedication and your environmental consciousness. It’s good to learn that there are people out there around the world who care enough about our planet’s health and each other to take on the complicated pollution issues.

    Regarding the Organic Consumers Association’s and author David Steinman’s recent and disturbing organic and natural personal care products study, I’m sorry, but you do have some rather important information reported incorrectly. (A typo perhaps?) There were just three USDA certified organic companies’ products that were tested and found to be dioxane-free, not four companies. The three companies were our company, TerrEssentials (every product we make is certified under the USDA National Organic Program), Dr. Bronners and Sensibility Soaps.

    One additional item that is not quite accurate is the information about the derivation of the surfactants (detergents) sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. Regardless of whether these chemicals originate from a petroleum source or vegetable (non-organic coconut oil) source, the fossil fuel-intensive (high temperature of 2000 degrees) industrial manufacturing process and the highly toxic metal catalysts and reactive agents that are required to manufacture these chemicals renders them both as synthetic — not natural — chemical materials. That’s synthetic according to the USDA National Organic Program regulation’s official definition of the word synthetic.

    It’s important to know that castile soap is a true soap. True soap originated in nature, unlike surfactants (detergents) which are chemical inventions of men. Unfortunately, the chemical industry has successfully lobbied to be able to call their synthetic detergents “soap”– buyer beware. Environmentally-conscious people need to carefully read labels: true soap is identified as “castile soap,” detergents/surfactants will have a chemical name. By the way, we wash our dishes (and our home and our clothing) with our own castile soap and it works great! Our Zingin’ Citrus is our favorite.

    There is much good science to show us that purchasing any “all natural” or “organic” product containing synthetic surfactant, fatty acid/emulsifying wax, coloring, sunscreen, preservative or fragrance chemicals is, quite simply, not an environmentally-friendly action. Thus, it is important to remember that the industrial surfactant manufacturing processes are very polluting and unhealthy for our environment, and products that contain chemical surfactants are unhealthy when you rub them on your body and also unhealthy when they are washed down our drains into our drinking water. Lastly, because these chemicals are cheap, you may think that you are being thrifty when you buy synthetic “all natural” and/or non-certified “organic” products, but, in the long-term, the negative downstream environmental costs are huge.

    So that we can create real change and make true contributions to cleaning up our planet, please encourage others to support companies who have made the significant commitment to producing genuine USDA certified organic products — the highest, golden organic standard in the world.

    (The USDA National Organic Program regulations are more than 500 pages! USDA certified organic personal care products are held to the same rules — not different and lesser rules — as USDA certified organic foods.)

    Thanks again for your good work!

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