Sodium Coco Sulfate: Is It Natural?
If It Comes From Coconuts . . . It Must Be Natural
…a friend gave me a NATURAL pink shampoo puck from a company called “______ Organics.” I read your blogs all the time and I know this will make your blood boil so sit down. This company is NOT organic and the ingredients are NOT natural and they are selling this bar for 14 bucks and the size is only 3 ounces. I get why companies do this because they do whatever they can get away with to make a buck but I don’t think it’s right at all. But what really burns my brain is my friend is convinced this is a natural company. The first ingredient is “Sodium coco sulfate” which is a synthetic detergent on google and it is pink. My friend believes this ingredient is good because the company says it comes from coconuts...
We often receive emails questioning ingredients, information and/or practices represented by other companies.
Sadly, there are companies that create great "natural skincare" marketing campaigns but do not create "natural skincare" products.
While I will admit that these companies are often a source of great angst for me, more importantly, they remind me of how lucky I am and how proud I am to be part of a company that truly believes in natural skin care.
Sodium Coco Sulfate
In this blog, I would like to talk about the ingredient mentioned in the email, Sodium Coco Sulfate.
This is not the first email we have received about this ingredient. One customer recently asked . . .
Do you know anything about Sodium Coco Sulfate? I was told that it is a natural mild cleanser made from coconuts, not petroleum like SLS. Is it more like soap?
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate are the three most common Sulfates used in personal care products.
Sulfates, including Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) along with its cousins, are a class of chemicals known as surfactants.
They are detergents originally developed as degreasers to clean carpets, engines, laundry, etc. Sulfates help create a frothy, foamy lather that removes dirt, oil and grease.
Read more about surfactants on our blog "How Does Natural Soap Create Lather?"
It is important to note that many skincare companies proudly state that they are “SLS-free or even "sulfate-free."
But if that company is not using "real soap" and its product foams and lathers then it must be using some other type of lathering agent (detergent surfactant). My question is—what type of surfactant is being used in place of soap?
Chances are the company is using one of the many, many cousins of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.
One common substitute these days is Sodium Coco Sulfate.
It is true that Sodium Coco Sulfate does help create lather. It can be made from coconuts (it can also be made from palm oil). And yes, it is used as a cleansing agent in a product in place of a natural surfactant--like soap.
However, Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS), like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), is another synthetic detergent, a synthetic surfactant that creates lots of foamy lather and removes oil and grease but is NOT a soap.
The company referred to in the email hints that Sodium Coco Sulfate is better because Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is only made from petroleum. But that is not true because SLS can also be made from palm oil or coconut oil.
So what's the difference between SLS and SCS? In order to explain we need a wee bit of science.
A Wee Bit of "Fat" Science
Fats are also known as triglycerides. They are made up of three fatty acids and one molecule of glycerol. (Picture from Penn State: e-education.psu.edu)
Glycerol, also known as glycerin, is a small organic molecule with 3 carbon atoms and 3 hydroxyl (OH) groups.
A fatty acid consists of a long chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms called a hydrocarbon chain.
This chain is attached to a carboxyl group that consists of 1 carbon, 2 oxygen, and 1 hydrogen atoms--abbreviated COOH.
A typical fatty acid contains 12–18 carbons, though some may have as few as 4 or as many as 36. Looking at the picture of oleic acid, each yellow dot represents a carbon atom most of which are bonded to 2 hydrogen atoms.
It is the fatty acids that are important for this blog.
So, now back to the difference.
What is the Difference Between SLS and SCS?
The process to make SLS involves a chemical reaction that isolates one fatty acid from either petroleum, coconut oil, or palm oil. Whereas SCS is derived from a blend of fatty acids from coconut or palm oil.
Coconut-derived Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS) are quite similar. In fact, SCS actually contains SLS. The difference lies in the type of fatty acids used.
The process to make Sodium Lauryl Sulfate begins with the isolation of one particular fatty acid from the coconut oil called Lauric Acid (C12).
The lauric acid is converted into lauryl alcohol by a process called hydrogenation.
The lauryl alcohol is then converted into lauryl sulfate by reacting it with sulfuric acid.
In the final step, the lauryl sulfate is neutralized with sodium carbonate and the result is sodium lauryl sulfate.
The process to make Sodium Coco Sulfate is almost the same as described above for SLS except instead of isolating only one fatty acid, Lauric Acid, SCS is made from a blend of the fatty acids in coconut oil.
Instead of placing the names of all of the "fatty acid" sulfates in the ingredient list, sodium coco sulfate is the name that manufacturers use for a blend consisting of sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium caprylic sulfate, sulfate, sodium stearyl sulfate, sodium oleic sulfate, etc.
It certainly is a lot shorter! And of course, sounds much more natural!
The table to the right was prepared based on research from numerous internet sites. The percentage of each fatty acid will vary depending on the sample.
Sodium Coco Sulfate contains Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
- Sodium Coco Sulfate is a blend of the fatty acids in coconut oil
- Coconut oil is comprised of around 40 to 50% lauric acid
- That means that the Sodium Coco Sulfate may actually contain 40 to 50% Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Therefore companies using SCS should not be claiming that their product is "SLS-free."
The bottom line is SCS contains SLS, so any brand trying to tell you otherwise does not understand the chemical composition of the ingredients they are using.
Final Thoughts About Sodium Coco Sulfate
While we love coconut oil, its science lab derivatives like Sodium Coco Sulfate (and its other cousins like Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate) are synthetic surfactants used in many personal care products. They work in a similar manner to and even contain sodium lauryl sulfate.
There is a lot of debate about the safety of sulfates--and other synthetic ingredients. Companies that use these ingredients state, and even cite research to show, that these ingredients can be mild and safe.
Companies who choose not to use synthetic surfactants often cite research to show, that these ingredients are linked to skin irritation, allergic reactions, and dermatitis.
It is all very confusing and quite frustrating!
I am not here to debate whether or not Sodium Coco Sulfate is less irritating, safer, or better than other sulfates.
Also, although I am obviously biased against using synthetic detergents as an ingredient, my intention is not to persuade you that all synthetic surfactants are evil.
You can and should always do your own research in order to decide for yourself whether you want to use a particular ingredient in your home, for your family, or on your skin.
I simply believe that companies that brand and market themselves as "natural" should not be using synthetic surfactants in their personal care products under the guise that the starting material of the ingredient is of plant origin (like coconuts). The final product can then be marketed as plant-derived and appears more natural to the consumers.