What to Know About Sulfate

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on May 12, 2023
3 min read

‌Sulfate is a group of mineral salts that can have a natural or human-made origin. These salts can appear in the soil, air, and water. 

Sulfates can form during the decay of plant and animal matter, but they can also form as byproducts from the textile, mining, steel mill, and tannery industries. Sulfates can also appear as human-made ingredients used for cleaning and personal care. Here’s what you need to know about sulfate. 

‌Sulfate mineral salt is found in two main locations: the environment and consumer products. 

In the environment, you usually find sulfate in the water. It can get into drinking water from industrial runoff or household waste and then increase in concentration. Low concentrations are naturally present and cause no concern. Higher concentrations can lead to bad-tasting water and a higher chance for you to develop gastrointestinal problems. 

Sulfates found naturally in the air could interact with other chemicals to form sulfuric acid. This acid is known to be corrosive, and it can affect your health if you’re exposed to it.  

In consumer products, the most common sulfate compounds are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). These come from fatty alcohols made from palm kernel oil or petroleum oil sources. The fatty alcohols mix with sulfur trioxide and sodium carbonate to form sulfate compounds. 

You can find sulfate compounds like SLS and SLES in a variety of consumer products, including:

  • Laundry detergent
  • Dish detergent
  • Liquid hand soap
  • Shampoo
  • Toothpaste
  • Face cleansers
  • Bath bombs

Sulfates in consumer products are considered surfactants – or detergents – because they bind to oil, fat, grease, and dirt, removing them from the surface. Sulfates also produce a lather, which makes them appealing as ingredients in shampoo and soap. 

Since sulfate can occur naturally, its presence may go unnoticed. This means you may never experience a side effect. However, higher sulfate concentrations or industrial-made sulfates could affect your health. Sulfates in some consumer products may also lead to side effects.

Diarrhea. Some people can get diarrhea from higher concentrations of sulfates in drinking water. This diarrhea can occur in children or sensitive people of any age when concentrations get too high.

Intestinal pain. Some people can experience cramping and intestinal bloating when they drink water high in sulfate‌.

Lung irritation. Sulfates can also linger in the air from air pollution. Sulfur dioxide forms from burning fuel. It changes to sulfuric acid and sulfates in the air. Sulfates are a large part of the haze pollution that irritates the lungs and affects your lung health.

Dry skin. Dry skin is a common health effect of sulfates in consumer products. Whether from laundry detergent, soap, or shampoo, the sulfates can cause reactions in sensitive people. Sometimes, sulfates like SLS and SLES end up removing too much oil, washing off the skin’s protective barrier and causing redness and dry, itchy skin.

Dermatitis and edema. People with sensitive skin or skin conditions like eczema or rosacea could develop skin inflammation – dermatitis – and edema from using consumer products containing SLS or SLES. The higher the concentration, the higher the chance you have of getting a skin reaction. 

Sulfate is a broad group of mineral salts found in many places, so it’s hard to avoid. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have said that sodium compounds like SLS and SLES are considered safe at low levels. However, some individuals with sensitive skin and gastrointestinal systems can have reactions to the sulfate compounds and the mineral salts. 

For drinking water, you can help reduce exposure to sulfates by installing a filtration system and having your water tested regularly.

Although sulfate compounds like SLS and SLES help skin care and household cleaning products create a foamy lather or latch onto oils and grime, they can cause irritation in some people. Read the ingredients label. This can help you identify if the product has one of these compounds. You might benefit from switching to new products, since different skin care products could help reduce your skin irritation.

If you experience sensitivity to consumer products containing SLS or SLES, speak to your doctor. They may recommend further treatment with a dermatologist who can help you rule out possible causes and determine whether sulfates are causing the irritation.