If you ever decide to peep at the labels on your shampoos or body washes, it’s likely you’ll come across the ingredient sodium cocoyl isethionate. It plays a crucial role in our beloved shower time rituals (shampooing, face cleansing, etc.) and is known for creating the foamy lather we love to indulge in.

Sodium cocoyl isethionate provides skincare benefits and serves as a fantastic alternative to harsher, drying cleansers (like sulfates). We spoke with NYC-based dermatologists, Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose and Dr. Jeannette Graf and cosmetic chemist and skincare developer, Vince Spinnato to learn more about the ingredient. Keep reading for all its benefits and how to incorporate it into your daily routine.

Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate at a Glance

  • Coconut-derived cleansing agent regarded as compatible with sensitive skin
  • Known to mitigate disruption of skin’s barrier
  • Produces gentle foaming action
  • Deemed safe by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel

Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate Description

Sodium cocoyl isethionate is a mild soap-free cleansing agent known for its ability to mitigate disruption of skin’s barrier. It is derived from coconut and is regarded as compatible with sensitive skin. It’s an anionic surfactant, meaning a cleansing agent with a negative instead of a positive charge. Anionic surfactants are the most common type due to their ability to lift and suspend dirt, oil, and debris, allowing them to be washed away.

Suppliers of this ingredient tout its gentle foaming action as a desirable quality for consumers, even though the foam itself has little cleansing ability. In addition to skin care formulations, sodium cocoyl isethionate is a popular ingredient in hair products.

Sodium cocoyl isethionate has been deemed safe by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. Their report surveyed products containing up to 49.4% in rinse-off formulas and 17% for leave-on products.

Sodium cocoyl isethionate is a powder in its raw material form.

What Is Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate?

According to Graf, sodium cocoyl isethionate is a fine white powder that’s derived from coconut oil. “It’s a sodium salt that’s known to be gentle on the skin,” she says. The process of creating it, explains Spinnato, includes mixing a natural sulfonic acid called isethionic acid with the fatty acids that naturally occur in coconut oil. Most commonly, you’ll find the ingredient listed on the back of your shampoos, body washes, cleansers, and bars of soap since it’s considered to be a surfactant.

“Surfactants are used as cleansing agents because they mix well with both oils and water,” explains Murphy-Rose. The ingredient can mix with oils to lift dirt off the face, helping to rinse away any residue leftover from the day. “In particular, sodium cocoyl isethionate is a gentle surfactant so it has a reduced risk of skin irritation,” says Murphy-Rose.1 Other surfactants (like sulfates) tend to be harsh on the skin, stripping it of its natural oils and compromising the skin barrier.2 However, this particular surfactant isn’t like that. In fact, Murphy-Rose mentions that it may help leave the skin feeling smooth and moisturized without stripping the skin whatsoever.

“It also a good emulsifier, foaming effectively to allow a rich lather while cleansing,” says Graf. “It’s used in products as an emulsifier because it reduces surface tension, which helps remove oil and dirt from the skin.” With each pump or squeeze, the ingredient helps lower the surface tension of water, which is what makes the cleanser lather and spread easier. In other words, sodium cocoyl isethionate is what makes the product lather so luxuriously when you apply it.

Benefits of Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate for Skin

Sodium cocoyl isethionate offers benefits for nearly all skin types, particularly those with sensitive or dry skin types. Some of these benefits include:

  • Produces a silky lather: Due to the fact that it’s a surfactant, sodium cocoyl isethionate lowers the surface tension of the water, allowing the product to spread easier across the face. “In hair care products, it gently cleanses hair while removing excess oil to reduce tangles and frizz, as well as allow the products to lather,” says Graf.
  • Adding hydration and moisture: According to Spinnato, sodium cocoyl isethionate exhibits a high foaming ability producing a stable, rich, and velvety lather that does not dehydrate the skin. Instead of drying out the skin like other surfactants, it’ll leave your skin feeling hydrated and moisturized sans any irritation, redness, or dryness.
  • Gently lifting away dirt, oil, and another build-up: By bonding water and oil, sodium cocoyl isethionate has the ability to help get rid of any makeup residue, dirt, or grime that’s been sitting on your face, body, or scalp all day. “This means that it is an agent that helps remove the dirt and oils with the emulsification of the product,” says Graf.
  • Preventing damage to the skin barrier: Unlike other harsher surfactants, sodium cocoyl isethionate is kinder on the skin. In return, explains Graf, it cleanses the skin gently without damaging the moisture barrier or taking away any hydration.

Why Is Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate Used?

Sodium cocoyl isethionate is a surfactant ingredient derived from coconut oil. Surfactants are a type of ingredient that is used in cleansing products. Surfactants work by reducing the surface tension between two phases, ie between a liquid and a solid or a liquid and liquid.

By disruption of the surface tension allows for dirt and oils to be lifted from the skin where they can be easily washed away from the skin. Surfactants also help to wet skin and hair as they breakdown the barrier between the water and natural oils on the skin and hair, surfactants also make oils partially soluble in water and are able to suspend dirt and oil. Most surfactants will also contribute to the foaming and lathering properties of a product as well.

Sodium cocoyl isethionate is also considered a low-sensitivity surfactant. This means that it is unlikely to cause irritation or sensitivity when using this surfactant. Of course, the level of potential sensitivity will depend on the other ingredients in a specific product. However, sodium cocoyl isethionate is unlikely to be responsible for any irritation or sensitivity from a product.

What Exactly Is Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate?

Just to get a little technical for those who are interested, sodium cocoyl isethionate is the sodium salt of the coconut fatty acid ester of isethionic acid.

Is Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate Vegan?

Sodium cocoyl isethionate is considered a vegan ingredient. As sodium cocoyl isethionate is derived from coconut oil, a plant-based source, it is considered a vegan ingredient.

It is always best to check the other ingredients in a formulation to ensure that the other ingredients in the formulation are also vegan. This also goes for checking if the brand is cruelty-free. Most companies will have information on whether they are cruelty-free accredited, on their website.

Is Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate Safe?

The safety of sodium cocoyl isethionate has been evaluated by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, a group responsible for reviewing the safety of skincare and cosmetic ingredients. The Expert Panel has reviewed the available data on sodium cocoyl isethionate and found the ingredient to be safe in its current uses and concentrations. Sodium cocoyl isethionate is considered safe in concentrations up to 50% in rinse-off products and 17% for leave-on products.

Rise off products refers to products that you would rinse off quickly after application such as cleansers and soaps. Leave on products refer to products that you would leave on for extended periods of time such as moisturizers, lotions, makeup, and masks.

The research conducted on sodium cocoyl isethionate by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel determined that it has low irritation potential to the eyes. However, it was not found to be sensitizing to the skin or produce phototoxic effects.

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel suggests that any irritation that would occur, in particular to the eyes would be of a similar nature to other surfactants and could cause mild irritation in hypersensitive skin types.

Side Effects of Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate

As of now, there are no known side effects associated with using sodium cocoyl isethionate. However, if you have a coconut allergy, you should steer clear of the ingredient. “Since sodium cocoyl isethionate is derived from coconut oil, it should be avoided by anyone who has a coconut allergy,” says Murphy-Rose. Another thing to note: If you overuse the ingredient, it may be drying, particularly for those with natural or thicker textured hair types. “It may strip the hair of its natural oils if you use it too often on dryer hair types, so make sure to proceed with caution,” explains Spinnato.

How To Use It

Due to its gentle nature, sodium cocoyl isethionante can be used every single day. “For a body wash, opt to use it twice a day,” explains Murphy-Rose. “If it’s a cleanser, you should only be using it two times a day at maximum.”

Before using it, make sure the bottle has no more than 50% SCI, advises Graf, as it can be drying. The ingredient arrives within shampoos, body washes, cleansers, and soap bars, so incorporating it into your routine is truly an effortless product that’ll reap major rewards.

Is sodium cocoyl isethionate harmful?

Potential side effects of Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate include eye irritation and lung irritation. It is highly recommended that protective gloves, masks, and goggles be worn any time this product is handled.