Did any friend, coworker or well-meaning relative ever warn you that sodium lauryl sulfates, or SLS, is an ingredient that causes cancer? But when you ask them why, all they can give as an explanation is they "heard it from somewhere." Incredibly, the "SLS causes cancer" phrase has become ingrained in most of our minds when it is actually nothing but a "myth grown into legend."
Though no one can really pinpoint the origin, the myth probably started on the internet. Some of you may recall receiving an email more or less warning you that "Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) can cause cancer." Sometimes there is "testimony" from a professor at an academic institution, or from a scientist or researcher at one of the large pharmaceutical corporations (in some variations, the scientist responds with a flippant "yeah, we know it can kill you but we put it in the products anyway"). Despite the lack of solid evidence, many people took the warning seriously and the whole cosmetics and personal care products world went into an uproar because SLS is contained in almost every foaming product you can imagine- cleansers, shampoos, toothpaste, body baths, dish washing detergent, and even kid's play bubbles.
Naturally, what followed was the rise in the natural product companies. They have played up the "SLS is dangerous!" hype in order to boost sales of their own "SLS-free" products. Sadly, though, since cosmetics are not under the stringent federal regulations as pharmaceutical prescription medicines, companies are free to label (or rather, mis-label) products however they choose. "SLS-free" facial cleansers, for example, may still contain sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES), which is a chemical relative of SLS. Sometimes SLS may not be an ingredient, but another even more dangerous chemical (i.e., 1,4 dioxane or nitrosamines) may be included. Or, the company might chose not to list SLS as an ingredient (hey, you never know...).
So what exactly is SLS? SLS is an ingredient commonly used in products as foaming and rinse agents. If your facial cleanser foams, then it most likely contains SLS. Some people actually do have allergic reactions to SLS, and if in contact with skin for too long, SLS can cause irritation.
Why the link to cancer? Once upon a time not so long ago, some shampoos were contaminated with nitrosamines; the source was linked to ethanolamine lauryl sulfate. This problem has been addressed and corrected. Maybe the SLS rumor started from someone who mixed up the similar sounding chemical names.
Bottom line is, you can stop hiding from products containing SLS. As long as you are not ingesting these products internally, you are fine. Shampoos and facial products contain up to 15% SLS, which are not harmful quantities. Besides, the amount of contact your face has with SLS-containing facial cleansers is minimal; the facial cleanser is also highly diluted and washed off by the water you use to wash your face. So dispel those fears. You have much more important things to think of than whether or not your facial cleanser is out to kill you!