Scalp Acne Caused By Sodium Lauryl Sulfate In Shampoos

I’ve been suffering from persistent and severe scalp acne for ages. I got it when Accutane transferred by back acne to my scalp (improvement, of sorts). I’ve been battling with it even since. It reacts to diet and gets better when I practice what I preach. But my scalp has always been more sensitive than my face to dietary slips. It breaks out easily even after a rather minor dietary slip, whereas my facial skin can take more ‘dietary abuse’.

Now, I think, I finally found out the problem.

Chemicals known as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sufate (SLES).

Google those names and you’ll find some truly outlandish claims about their dangers. One could easily think most countries are ruled by heartless dictators that want to see us suffer.

Such outlandish claims withstanding, these chemicals can cause problems to some people.

What sodium lauryl sulfate does?

Pick up any personal care product from supermarket shelves and most likely you’ll find SLS in the ingredient list. That’s because SLS is a foaming agent. It creates that nice and rich foam we expect from our soaps and shampoos. It’s also a detergent, and thus strips away hard-to-get-rid of fats. Manufacturers also like the fact that it’s dirt-cheap.

SLS is a known skin irritant

All detergents irritate the skin to some degree. That’s because they don’t distinguish between the grease in your garage floor and the protective fatty-acids in your skin. It strips away all fats.

That’s why it’s used as a primary skin irritant in medical trials. The researchers apply SLS to the skin and that usually produces a rash. Then they apply the product itself (usually intended to heal the skin) to the rash and see what happens.

Before you jump to conclusion, I must point out that in in those test SLS is applied to the skin for extended periods, ranging from 20 minutes to 24 hours. But when you wash your hair SLS is in contact with your skin for usually less than a minute. That makes a huge difference, and that’s why SLS usually doesn’t cause any problems in normal use.

Sensitive skin and cumulative irritation

The keyword in the previous sentence is ‘usually’. Because there are cases (me included) where SLS causes skin irritation, or contact allergy. Some people get mouth ulcers from SLS in toothpaste. I probably get scalp acne.

It’s possible that my skin is just extra sensitive to SLS, and that’s why it causes problems for me. Or it can be the result of cumulative irritation.

As I browsed the studies of sodium lauryl sulfate I found a few trials about the cumulative effect of irritants. These studies show that the effect of irritants compounds. So together they can cause an effect where individually none would. So maybe SLS is just the proverbial last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

How SLS can cause acne and skin irritation

Because it’s a detergent SLS can damage the protective acid mantle on the skin. Acid mantle is a layer of fatty-acids that protects the skin from bacteria and other unwelcome substances. This is the reason why you should never wash acne-prone areas of the skin with soap.

Damage to the acid mantle weakens the ‘skin barrier function’. You can think of skin barrier function as border control between countries. It controls what goes in and out through the border.

When the skin barrier function is compromised bacteria easily take up residence in your skin. It also leads to excess moisture loss. And in the end your skin becomes more sensitive and acne-prone.

My story

As a pure coincidence my friend bought me a bottle of herbal shampoo. As I browsed the ingredient list I noticed it didn’t have SLS. I’ve been using it for about 2 weeks. The results look good so far. My scalp is far less irritated and the existing pimples have mostly healed. It’s too early to say anything definite yet, but the initial results are very promising.

Bottom-line

SLS and SLES are known skin irritants. In normal use they are considered very mild irritants and pose no problems for the majority of people. This is abundantly clear from the fact that millions of people are exposed to them daily without any negative side-effects.

However they can add to the cumulative irritation your skin faces. And this can cause problems for some people.

So if you suffer from persistent acne in areas that regularly come in contact with SLS, you now have one more avenue to explore.

Update 15.12.2013

Looks like I was wrong. Later experimentation showed that it’s unlikely that SLS had anything to do with my scalp acne. Sometime ago I started suspecting my scalp acne is not really acne but seborrheic dermatitis. After some research I decided to try a shampoo with zinc, since studies have shown it can be helpful. The first shampoo I tried was a big brand name shampoo from supermarket, and it had SLS. I noticed that my scalp actually got better while using it. Later on I tested a zinc shampoo without SLS, and got the same results as with the brand name shampoo. So it’s unlikely SLS had a negative effect on my skin, or if it did, it’s too small for me to notice. Further observation shows that my scalp health is closely linked to my gut health. When I eat something that gives me gut problems, I can usually expect a breakout in my scalp, occasionally on the face too, a day or two later.

This just shows how notoriously difficult it is to determine which substances or foods affect your skin and which don’t. Acne, to some degree, comes and goes on its own, and these ‘natural cycles’  make it hard to reliably observe your skin. You need to be really careful so that you don’t fool yourself and end up making your life miserable by putting too many restrictions.

Also, it’s important to challenge your observations. Do you think that food X causes you acne? Then eat it and see what happens, several times. If you consistently see that your acne gets worse after eating food X, then you can be fairly certain it indeed affects your acne. But don’t jump to the conclusion based on one or two observations.

Don’t know how to get over acne? Let me help.

Feel like you’ve tried everything but acne still won’t budge? Read this page to understand why you get acne and what you can do to get over it.

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About Me

Hi, I am Acne Einstein(a.k.a. Seppo Puusa). I'm a bit of a science nerd who is also passionate about health. I enjoy digging through medical journals for acne treatment gems I can share here. You can read more about my journey through acne and how I eventually ended up creating this.

22 thoughts on “Scalp Acne Caused By Sodium Lauryl Sulfate In Shampoos

  1. I have suffered with acne or adult acne for about 30 years. I got pus filled spots and sore red areas on my chin , and around my nose.

    Like many sufferers I was pedantic about washing regularly, applying sunscreen etcetc. Had lots of antibiotics over the years but whatever I did the spots always came back.

    A few months ago I came across some articles about the cavenman approach to skin care which effectively gets you to only used water for a while.

    So I tried it and almost immediately noticed a change.

    Looking further into it I Realised that sls was part of my face wash, shaving foam, shampoo and parabens were in my sunscreen. Maybe this was the issue.

    Now, a few months on and having removed all sls or ALS and parabens my skin is as good as it has been for over 30 years.

    No more waking up in the morning wondering how many spots I wil have; no more of the crawling feeling on my skin.

    I’ve you have similar symptoms try getting rid of the sls products. You may be amazed how easy it can be to get you skin looking great.

    • Douglas, thanks for sharing your experience! Good to hear you found your solution. I don’t generally recommend the caveman approach. It can work if your skin is irritated by all the chemicals you’ve used in the past. But there’s a legitimate need for topical treatments in acne care, and water alone just doesn’t cut it. Just like you did, it’s more of a case of finding the irritating ingredients in the products and then cutting out those. SLS is a common suspect.

      • Thanks Seppo for a great post. I recently made the change to vegetable soap bars like those found at Trader Joes. Too soon to tell but so far so good. No itchy dry skin like other body washes, soaps, etc that have the sulfates in them. Only hard part is finding a good shampoo that contains no form of sulfates whatsoever. Many claim they are sulfate free, yet contain c14-16 olefin sulfonate which is supposedly just as bad or worse; or other irritating forms of sulfates (with many creative synonyms). Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks, Roy

        • Unfortunately chemistry has always been my weakest science subject. So I don’t think I can be much of a help here. Though I can say it’s probably better to remain somewhat skeptical of those safety in cosmetics websites and books. They tend to be more interested in fear-mongering than actually providing good information. Weird how that’s also almost a perfect description of the alt-med and natural health movements.

          Of course some people have problems with personal care products. But cosmetics chemistry is complicated. And how a particular ingredient affects you probably depends on what else is in the formulation, and of course on the concentration of that ingredient. That’s why it’s so darn difficult to make sense of these things. Not to mention the fact that some natural ingredients can be much more irritating than synthetic stuff.

          For what’s it’s worth, I like to buy this kind of stuff from iherb.com. Partially because they are one of the few websites that ship to Thailand, but also because they have lot of smaller brands that are better suited for niche markets, people like you and me. Some time ago I got this tea tree shampoo from there, and just started using it today morning. Take a look at it and see if it’s something that could work for you.

          You can use the discount code below to get a $5 – $10 discount for your first order. Disclaimer, iherb gives me a small commission if you use my discount code. So thank you if you use it, if not, that’s also ok.

          Here’s the discount code: KMD933

  2. Frankly. After I switched to a normal body shampoo. My acne on my shoulders improved a lot.. I suspect that SLS was the cause of it too.. By normal I mean not a SLS body wash. Haha

      • What was the shampoo brand that you used without the SLS? I kinda need one without that stuff, as my shoulders tend to overreact whenever I use something with SLS

        • I’ve been using a handful of shampoos from there. This one was quite nice:

          That said, I do think I was a bit hasty in writing this post. I think I have seborrheic dermatitis on my scalp, rather than acne. I’ve been testing a commercial shampoo with zinc pyrithione (shown to be helpful in many studies) and SLS. I haven’t noticed any negative effects from SLS and zinc pyrithione seems to be helping my skin. Here’s an SLS-free alternative (I received this one a few days back, still to try).

          That said, more than anything my scalp skin reacts to my gut. Anytime I eat something that upsets my gut my scalp breakouts. Lately it hasn’t been that bad, probably because of the zinc pyrithione shampoo I’ve been using.

  3. Actually, something has been bothering me lately.. When sebum gets oxidized, it basically turns into a pimple later on.. But.. the sebum that the hair shaft produces, what about that one? Why isn’t scalp acne a widespread problem like the face? I mean.. Soemtimes I think my scalp produces more sebum than my face does and yet I don’t break out up there? What’s the deal? How’s the sebum there any different from the one produced by the face?

    • Honestly speaking, I don’t know. Maybe the ratio of fatty acids in scalp sebum is different. The oxidation problem usually only affects certain fatty acids in sebum, and it just so happens people with acne have even higher ratio of those fatty acids in sebum, at least in facial skin. It could also be that the fur you carry on top of your head protects sebum 🙂

  4. I tried No-poo with baking soda and ACV because Tracy recommended it. Then I noticed my hair has some red highlights which I didn’t really like so I switched to rice vinegar (my hair is light brown). I had been doing it since April when 2 weeks ago I had to use shampoo and conditioner again because I was away from home. Well, guess what. My hair felt better with shampoo and condtioner!!! It was much easier to comb it and there was no other difference overrall. Actually, My scalp got a little bit irrated by the baking soda. So I’m switching back to the “evil” products called shampoo and condioner and I’m not afraid that they will give me cancer or any of the other ridiculous claims I read on the Internet (and I’m ashamed of that but I believed tham). My hair did look better when I was no poo but it was because I used rice flour as a dry shampoo and cut the split ends regularly (S&D method, lol). I will continue using rice flour because it is the one thing that did make a difference in how my hair looks, I will also use rice vinegar because I like the blond highlights, maybe I will also occasionally use honey to make my hair shine but all that fear mongering about the dangers of shampoo and conditioner is just ridiculous. I will listen to what the Beauty brains recommends and only shampoo the roots of my hair and condition the ends. I also don’t need to buy expensive shampoos. Falling for marketing tricks is stupid but falling for all that “all products are evil and if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, they will give you cancer and make you die” is not very wise either.

    • Yep, this is one of the more annoying ‘features’ of the alt-med world. Many alt-med gurus have no real expertise (at least regarding to health) so the only thing they can do is to alert your of dangers lurking in everyday foods and items. Of course they also have to weave conspiracy theories to explain why doctors, scientists and health authorities don’t tell you about these supposed dangers.

      If you take away the fear-mongering and made up ‘health secrets’, then these people have nothing to say and nobody would listen to them. I’m not saying they do this on purpose, but that’s what ends up happening.

      I find it ironic that the people who promote alt-med knowledge believe they have some special knowledge that others don’t know. That they understand something others don’t. It’s a very seducing idea, and I admit I was like this during my alt-med days. It’s just that reality is not very kind to their delusions. These people are usually so ignorant they don’t even know how wrong they are. We skeptics call this the arrogance of ignorance, lol.

      It’s of course possible that personal care products have problematic chemicals, but this knowledge doesn’t come from alt-med gurus. It comes through scientific testing.

  5. Just curious if after quite a while your experience with scalp “acne” has been resolved and if the two shampoos you mention in your posts actually helped. My thought is I don’t think that SLS is that harmful to the scalp because it is rinsed off quickly but a non-SLS shampoo might be a safer bet. Regarding your two shampoo recommendations, I notice the one Biotin H-24 has some zinc pyrithione in it but it is at the bottom of the ingredient list and is probably not of much use as compared to something like Head & Shoulders. Also, the Tea Tree shampoo I wouldn’t use because of everything I have read about hair loss and the recommendations to try to avoid shampoos that have oils in them. My question is have you found a shampoo that has worked the best for your scalp acne/dermatitis problem? I have the same problem and my diet doesn’t seem to make much difference. My acne problem is mostly confined to the scalp. You also mentioned gut problems but I’m not sure what that means. I have no noticeable gastro problems at all but maybe taking a probiotic might help anyway? Thanks for any comments.

    • Agree with you that SLS is probably not harmful due to short contact time. At least for majority of people, perhaps it can cause problems for some sensitive individuals.

      In the end I found that different shampoos had zero effect on my scalp acne. Initially it seemed that switching to SLS-free shampoo helped, but the noticed improvement was either normal ups and downs of acne or due to improvement in my gut health. I’ve noticed that my scalp acne is almost completely connected to my gut health. When my gut is working well my scalp clears, but constipation and other such issues show up on my scalp a day or two later.

      Click the ‘Gut’ link in the main menu to learn more about them and how they are connected to skin health.

  6. I have a similar experience but slightly more aggravating because every shampoo out there has caused my scalp to break out and it hurts. So I too switched to head and shoulders despite not having dandruff issues. Yes it cleared my scalp bumps up, but I couldn’t sleep because when my head hits a pillow or surface my entire scalp would burn and itch. So I figured something harsh in that shampoo i am allergic to. Switched to baby shampoo because there is nothing in it. It breaks my scalp out too, and there isn’t any SLS in it that I know of. So I either have a bumpy scalp or a burning one. Starting to wonder if it isn’t the glycerin. There is SLS in the head and shoulders but no glycerin. But the baby shampoo has glycerin, along with everything else. Out of desperation I washed my hair with bar soap yesterday which sucked, but no pain at least. Not sure what to do.

    • I’m not sure I can help you with this. If you haven’t already, it’s probably worth to visit a dermatologists and maybe they can do patch testing to figure out what your skin reacts to.

    • I have had very similar problems for about 10 years with scalp breaking out, whiteheads, itching, and all. I had been using H&S every day for years and years without any problems. Then the problems started. I switched to a Suave product, which worked fine, until they changed the formula.

      The pimples would hurt, break and heal fairly quickly and the cycle would start all over, again. It has managed to get so bad that the lymph nodes were swelling which caused additional pain and stress.

      Knowing the cause of dandruff, I tried using a powder anti-fungal. It helped a bit. Then sprayed Bactine to the affected areas to reduce the itching sensation. Applying the Bactine and combing it in not only stopped the itching, but, really helped to heal the injuries, too. So, Seppo, your description about hair, scalp, dandruff, pimples, infection, irritation sources and other at the beginning of this blog is very true and accurate.

      Getting down to my current routine, I use as little as possible of J&Js Clear & Clean then use St. Ives apricot acne scrub with 3% salicylic acid on my hair. It is working well. Also, staying awake until my hair is dry at night or showering in the AM make a difference. This seems to make sense, with dandruff being caused by a fungus…. sleeping with wet hair would only make the problem worse.

      Tooth paste with the SLSs have been eliminated. Gums have stopped being irritated and bleeding.

      Have tried the “Blue” shampoo made with 3% salicylic acid and botanicals. It works, but, I need to really rinse my hair/head off really well, otherwise, I am back to where I don’t want to be.

      A doctor suggested using cranberry juice as a cleaner which is acidic and would change the scalp environment to be less hospitable to the dandruff causing fungus.

  7. First time in my adult life that I got itchy ‘scalp acne’, is when I let myself be suckered into using sulfate-free shampoos.

    As soon as I threw them out and returned to normal sulfate shampoos, the problem disappeared completely within 24 hours.

    The whole sulfate-free thing is a money-spinning scam. They don’t care how their products harms people, just as long as their marketing expenditure brings them 1,000% returns.

    Capitalist pigs. All of them.

  8. I have found the exact opposite to be true.

    When I read all the hype about ‘sls’ in shampoos being bad for you, I swapped to sls-free shampoos.

    No idea what it is about the sls-free variety, but I’ve now tried every single one available on the market over the last 2 years (both cheap and expensive) and without exception, every single one has given me very painful scalp acne.

    This I find to be curious, considering I’ve never had acne in my life – and especially not on my scalp.

    The only thing that stopped it, was returning to sls shampoos. I will never again listen to hype!

  9. I am going to try to find a SLS free shampoo and see if it makes a difference. I suffered for 30 years with canker sores. Once I read about SLS and started buying toothpaste without it, I hardly ever have them any more. When I do, they heal up normally (3-5 days). Since I know I’m sensitive to SLS, I think it’s a good place to start. Thank you for your article.

  10. It does seem to be hard to pin down the exact ingredients in a shampoo/conditioner that could lead to scalp acne. I had terrible cystic acne on my scalp and in my ears. I eventually switched to simpler soaps and shampoos, ones with less “toxic” (for lack if a better word) ingredients, no oils (oils tend to make me break out), no fragrance, and less ingredients over all.

    I settled on Lagona Free Shampoo and Shower Gel (which I use as a shampoo), Hair Print Chelating Shampoo (I alternate the Lagona shampoo with this one as it gets rid of build up in my hair), and Biovera Organic Hair Conditioner.

    I have been using this combo for years and the painful cysts are all but gone. I only get a zit on my every few months or so. These are also SLS free, but I can’t say for sure that that was the issue as these products also do not contain many other “toxic” ingredients that most shampoos have in them.

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