Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Is Bullshit OR How I Stopped Getting Canker Sores
Musings is an off-topic column featured on PCFG that touches on things that are tangentially related to eating or food or wellness, but don’t fit into the rest of the site. If you’re looking for creative writing, straight blogging, and general musings, then you’ve come to the right place! For all of our food coverage, click basically any other link on the site.
Food is awesome. Eating food is awesomer. Eating delicious food is awesomest. Know what’s not awesome? Frigging canker sores. Holy shit are they awful. There’s not many conditions out there which can bring you to tears just by chewing, but these mouth ulcers are more than capable of doing so. And when eating food becomes literally painful, you have a real problem.
So for anyone who’s been blessed and miraculously has never had a canker sore in their life, first off let me congratulate you on being a superhuman that has never felt true pain. But to the point, canker sores (also known as aphthous ulcers) are basically a small ulcer that develops in your mouth, usually on the inside part of your cheeks or on your gumline. They’re incredibly painful, to the point that even prodding them with your tongue feels like someone stabbed you with the stinger end of a hornet that’s also on fire. Particularly, they make eating things really unpleasant since not only is food bumping into them, but your mouth is also mechanically moving around too, stretching and moving the sore as well. Salty, dry/crunchy, or acidic foods particularly make them hurt even more. So in other words, foods that taste good. They usually go away on their own, but for the few days to a week that you have one, they ruin everything. Tl;dr version, they’re small mouth ulcers that HURT.
I would get these things randomly every so often, my entire life. Out of nowhere. It was just a normal occurrence that I learned to live with, since I figured most people got them once in a while too. Once in a while though, I’d get either a really big one, or a couple of them at once, and the pain was excruciating. But again, I just figured they were a part of life you deal with.
I’d asked my dentist and medical doctors about them in the past, but never got any concrete answers. Apparently the jury is still out for a lot of medical professionals, since there’s a bunch of different explanations for what can cause them. Some say food allergies, some say genetics. And yes, as someone who worked in the medical field, I can tell you there’s no one end-all-be-all cause for different diseases and conditions, especially when you go to Google, hoping for an easy explanation.
But I really got frustrated by one particularly bad experience I had about two years ago, where I had a canker sore form at the back of my frigging throat. Literally every single time I swallowed anything (including nothing), the muscle contractions triggered the ulcer, and it hurt like crazy. I hopelessly took to the interwebs in search of some sort of explanation for why this happened. As always, information was all over the place, with tons of different answers and theories. Though one stood out to me in particular: sodium lauryl sulfate.
See now, Meg has this thing where when she brushes her teeth, if the toothpaste has sodium lauryl sulfate in it, a lot of the time she’ll get this weird rash around her mouth. It doesn’t sting and it doesn’t burn, but it’s pretty apparent when it happens, and hard to ignore.
So, like, what the hell is sodium lauryl sulfate? In science-y English, it’s a surfactant detergent. In plain English though, it’s a foaming substance. Basically companies add it to their products to make them foam up better, which aids in the scrubbing action of cleaning something, in this case your teeth. Alright, seems legit. But unfortunately, tons and tons and tons of people develop reactions to it since it’s actually a really irritating chemical. And of course, the only reason it’s used is likely because it’s cheap and easy to obtain. So hooray, personal care companies, it’s totally cool people get rashes from this widely-used compound used in most of your shitty products, because, well it just doesn’t cost you very much to use it. The charmers.
Back to my situation, however. I knew Meg got a slight reaction from SLS, and I had read some accounts that it caused canker sores. Putting two and two together, I decided I have nothing to lose, and started actively avoiding mouth care products with the stuff in it.
Long story short, it was absolute day and night. I went from mouth ulcers once or twice a month, plus the worst canker sore I ever had in my life, to none. Nada. Absolutely zero. 25 years straight of “Sigh, shit, another canker sore.. Can’t enjoy food for the next week.” every month or so, to none period. I know that’s about as anecdotal as it gets, so please let me direct you to some explicit scientific evidence from the Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry which found “A statistically significant reduction in recurrent aphthous ulcers was observed during 2 months’ use of SLS-free dentifrice compared to 2 months’ use of the SLS-containing dentifrice.”
So yeah. That’s pretty clear-cut. I mean, my personal experience was pretty awesome, so I didn’t need further convincing. I began using specific toothpastes labeled as “sensitive mouths” and stuff, making sure none contained SLS. Admittedly, the toothpastes you find at organic grocers are preeetty scammy (Seriously, $7 for a box of tooth paste? Screw you.)
Hilariously enough, a lot of toothpastes billed as sensitive, specifically the most famous of all, Sensodyne, straight up shamelessly contain sodium lauryl sulfate. Are you guys for real? I’m sure some people reading may be leery, thinking “But wait, don’t you need the SLS to make the toothpaste work better?” Honestly, I’m not a scientist, but I’m assuming no you don’t. Because I haven’t noticed a decline in my teeth quality since I stopped using it, and there’s a lot of products out there which don’t contain it that still work fine. The toothpaste I’ve been using lately (Xyliwhite or something, I think it’s called) doesn’t contain any. It doesn’t create the cartoon-levels of thick, goopy foam that you’re probably accustomed to, but foams up just fine, and my teeth are clean.
At any rate, yes many are expensive unfortunately since even health/organic activists get dollar-sign-eyes. Though, I certainly was able to find store-branded ones without SLS, for cheap, most of the time. Though recently my go-to toothpaste from Walgreen’s pharamacy, seems like it might’ve been discontinued. Fortunately I found some affordable alternatives on Amazon. They’ve been working great for two years, and actually most impressively I have this one little closing story: I recently bit the inside of my lip while at lunch last week. Really bad. Like, I mean with bleeding and when you bite down you actually hear the crunch of your flesh getting bitten into. Miraculously though, I didn’t get a canker sore there. Just the little laceration caused by my teeth. That’s it.
Yeah, I’m convinced of it now. Sodium lauryl sulfate causes canker sores. And actually maybe SLS-free toothpaste gives you superpowers. Super mouth immunity or super mouth healing. Whichever.
Let me offer this disclaimer, in conclusion. Your body is this awesome little ecosystem of cells and DNA and germs and all sorts of crazy shit. Different things affect different people in different ways. So obviously what works for me may not work for you. HOWEVER, I found the most awesome of results when switching to SLS-free toothpaste. If you get canker sores, I really, strongly recommend you try buying toothpastes and mouthwashes without them, and give it a go for a month or two. Really, sodium lauryl sulfate is freaking stupid and you’ve got nothing to lose.