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.”  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.

There are many 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. 

Now there are some who will want to dismiss this article saying that I am biased and I do not use this ingredient. 

While I recognize that natural products may not work for everybody, and may not solve every problem, I will be the first to admit that I do have a bias against using synthetic ingredients skin and hair care products.

In this blog, I would like to talk about the ingredient mentioned in the email, Sodium Coco Sulfate.

My goal is not to debate whether or not Sodium Coco Sulfate is less irritating, safer, or better than other sulfates. My goal is not to convince you that it is an undesirable ingredient. My goal is to explain what it is and why it is used. 

 

Sodium Coco Sulfate

The email above is one of many. 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 synthetic detergents, or syndets, 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." 

But if that company is not using "real soap" as a surfactant and its product foams and lathers then it must be using some other type of lathering agent (detergent surfactant). Surfactants are a necessary ingredient in cleansing products since they bind together water and oil.

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 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 many products in place of a natural surfactant--like soap. 

However, Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS), like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), is another synthetic detergent. This means it is a chemically altered substance created to imitate a natural product that cleans, like 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. 

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.

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 Lauric acid below, 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 the same as described above for SLS except instead of isolating only one fatty acid, Lauric Acid, SCS is made from a blend of all the fatty acids in coconut oil, including lauric acid. Since SCS has a more complex molecular structure it seems to cause less skin irritation than SLS. 

Instead of placing the names of all of the "fatty acid" sulfates in the ingredient list, sodium coco sulfate is the recognized name used for a blend consisting of sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium caprylic sulfate, sulfate, sodium stearyl sulfate, sodium oleic sulfate, etc.

Fatty Acid Composition table comes from an article on ScienceDirect website written by J.J. Lal, et al. in the Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition). The percentage of each fatty acid will vary depending on the sample. 

Sodium Coco Sulfate contains Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

Follow this:

  • 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

The bottom line lies in the science. SCS contains SLS. 

*The percentage of Lauric acid will vary depending on the sample. 

Why Do Companies Use Sodium Coco Sulfate?

If you want to create a product that cleans and lathers you need a surfactant. If not a natural surfactant, like soap, then a synthetic detergent or syndet. By combining variations of different synthetic detergents, a syndet soap or shampoo is formed. Most commercial soaps are actually syndet bars. Liquid shampoo and shower gels are syndet but in liquid form. 

Shampoo bars are becoming increasingly popular, especially for consumers concerned about plastic waste. The solid bars can be easily packaged in a recyclable cardboard box.  

Some of the more "natural" companies have traded synthetic surfactants like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate for Sodium Coco Sulfate or Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate since they can be derived from coconut or palm oils and seem to be less irritating on the skin and scalp. 

Since many people have been using traditional liquid shampoo their whole life, switching to a bar form is a big change. The shampoo bars containing Sodium Coco Sulfate are made with many of the same ingredients as your favorite liquid shampoo, only without the extra water and plastic bottle. These syndet bars usually create a lot of foamy lather and come in fun colors and scents.

Hard water can make it more difficult to create a good lather and to rinse all of a natural soap-based shampoo from your hair. It is a fact that synthetic detergents rinse more easily in hard water than soap, that is why synthetic detergents became the laundry detergent of choice by most people.

Since synthetic detergents or surfactants do not bind with minerals in the water they rinse more easily than soap. So, if your hair is used to bottled detergent shampoo, you may have an easier adjustment to shampoo bars made with synthetic detergents because they clean with similar ingredients.

 

A Few Words About Ingredients Derived From ...

When it comes to personal care products and even foods, terms like "made with natural ingredients," "naturally sourced," "naturally derived," "derived from nature," and "derived from natural . . .," etc., often appear on labels. But what do these words really mean? Are these products really healthier?

Unfortunately, since there are no legal definitions for these words, ingredients and labels can be highly misleading for even the savviest consumer!

So why do manufacturers use these words? Just look at the emails I cited at the beginning. Since consumers equate these words with "natural" shoppers often believe they are purchasing a healthier product. 

We believe in using ingredients that are found in nature, naturally occurring, rich in nutrients, and as close to their original form as possible. Ingredients like cold-pressed oils and butters, organic essential oils, dried herbs, and botanicals.

Words like ‘plant derived’ or ‘naturally derived’ simply mean that the ingredient started out at some point as a whole plant, but they do not account for how the plant is processed, how it is modified, or what is added before it reaches its final form. 

Final Thoughts About Sodium Coco Sulfate

While I 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. 

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!

As I stated above, 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.

Ultimately the type of shampoo bar you choose for your hair care is up to you. I highly encourage you to read the list of ingredients before making a decision.

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 understand that making the switch to natural haircare might not be for everyone, but 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).

Natural shampoo bars are easy to use.

If you are new to soap-based shampoo bars, finding the right bar is important but I believe that using the proper technique you use to wash your hair is the best way to ensure a successful transition from synthetic shampoo to natural shampoo bars. Learn more about shampooing techniques on our blog, "How to Use a Shampoo Bar."