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What kind of chemical is "sodium laureth sulfate"? It seems to be the main ingredient in almost every shampoo or body wash.

-- Joe E. Simpson, the net

What kind? The cheap, popular, widely used kind, Joe. So popular, in fact, that it has its own urban legend that was all the rage with people who love forwarding those scary e-mail messages, like about how Panama hats cause brain damage. Sodium laureth sulfate and its macho sibling, sodium lauryl sulfate, create bubbles, cut grease, and provide a thick, rich (read "expensive") feel to a product. They began life as coconut oil, but that was many, many chemical processes ago. Urban legendheads declared them carcinogens for reasons too boring to go into here. Sodium lauryl sulfate, in high concentrations and left on the skin for long periods, will cause irritation. Sodium laureth sulfate is much milder. Both are used in low concentrations in toothpastes and bath products and are highly soluble, so they rinse away easily. Even the American Cancer Society says they're not carcinogens. So that's what they are and what they're not.

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