Week of 10/24/2004

Dear EarthTalk: A number of "natural" shampoos claim to be "sodium lauryl sulfate free." What is sodium lauryl sulfate, and should it be avoided?

—Kristen Lohse, Seattle, WA

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a synthetic detergent known for its ability to generate a sudsy lather. As a result, the beauty and cosmetics products industry has long used it as a key component in shampoos and other personal care products, citing consumer desire for a foamy bath and shower experience.

But what most happy bathers don’t know about this shampoo ingredient is that it dries the scalp, stripping the skin’s surface of its protective lipids. Follicle damage, hair loss, skin and eye irritation, and allergic reactions such as rashes and hives can result. And if accidentally ingested, SLS can lead to gastrointestinal and/or liver distress.

Despite these potential maladies, nine out of 10 shampoo brands contain SLS or one of its variants. And since the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate beauty or cosmetics products, SLS is likely to remain a staple of the personal care products industry as long as consumers want sudsy shampoos.

While consumers who switch to SLS-free shampoo might miss the sudsy lather they have grown accustomed to in mass marketed products, they can still expect clean and manageable hair. Manufacturers of all-natural shampoos usually opt for good old-fashioned soap instead of SLS-based detergent to get the cleaning done. "It is a fallacy that you need to have foaming bubbles to get it clean," says Dr. Ron Shelton of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Buyer beware, though: not all shampoos marketed as "natural" or "organic" are SLS-free. Check ingredients lists for SLS or variations such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS), or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES). All-natural herbal shampoos are least likely to contain SLS-type products. Aubrey Organics, Aveda, and Kiss My Face, among many other companies, make SLS-free shampoos. Check in your local natural foods markets.

CONTACTS: American Academy of Dermatology, (847) 330-0230, www.aad.org; Aubrey Organics, (800) 282-7394, www.aubrey-organics.com; Kiss My Face, (800) 262-KISS (5477), www.kissmyface.com; Aveda, (866) 823-1425, www.aveda.com.

Dear EarthTalk: There is a surge of interest among my MBA students in going to work for a "green company." Where do I find information on companies that are environmentally friendly?

—Rahn Huber, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

Shareholders, employees and customers alike are demanding more and more that companies conduct business in an environmentally responsible way. And many are responding by "greening up" everything from the components of their products and the energy used to make them, to the recycled content in their packaging and the way they deal with the waste that their operations generate. Still other companies exist purely to provide environmentally friendly alternatives to mainstream products and services.

Several socially concerned investment firms track corporate environmental records and publish their findings online. One such firm is Light Green Advisors, a Seattle-based investment advisor that helps investors who seek environmentally sound investment opportunities. Their "Eco-Index" ranks the environmental performance of large companies in a wide range of industries.

Other places to look include the lists of socially responsible mutual funds managed by firms like Calvert Group, Domini Social Investments, Green Century Funds and Pax World Funds. Likewise, the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes include multinational corporations that meet various environmental standards.

A number of non-profit watchdog groups monitor corporate environmental performance as well. One is the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), an association of investment funds and environmental groups that helps businesses adopt eco-friendly practices. Some 70 mid- to large-sized companies have formally committed to "continuous environmental improvement" by endorsing CERES" 10-point code of environmental conduct.

Co-op America, based in Washington, DC, offers report cards detailing where more than 300 major companies stand regarding environmental (and other) labor policies and practices. The organization also publishes the National Green Pages, the largest annual directory of America’s leading socially and environmentally responsible businesses.

Even the U.S. government weighs in regarding "green" companies, at least when it comes to commuting. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation have teamed up on the creation of a "Best Workplaces for Commuters" website. It bases its rankings on corporate offerings such as subsidized public transportation or vanpool passes, telecommuting (working at home) programs—even bicycle racks and showers for the sweaty. According to the EPA, the top 20 companies on the list save 250 million miles of driving and 12 million gallons of gasoline annually, while preventing the emission of more than 186,000 tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

CONTACTS: Light Green Advisors, www.lightgreen.com; Calvert Group, www.calvertgroup.com; Domini, www.domini.com; Green Century, www.greencentury.com; Pax World, www.paxworld.com; Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, www.sustainability-index.com; CERES, www.ceres.org; Co-Op America, www.coopamerica.org; Best Workplaces for Commuters, www.bwc.gov.