What is surfactant?
It sounds very strange, but it is indeed widely used in our daily life. Surfactant, a kind of chemical material, is applied to cleaning products by manufacturers to help remove greasy stains with water. In short, surfactant is cleaning agent.
They are actually smart chemicals that have two opposing features. They can dissolve both in water and oil. Therefore surfactant can help mix oils and waters (which would usually lay on top of each other). There’s a strong surface tension when water sitting on top of oil. Surfactant, by mixing the two, can decrease this surface tension, helping to wash away oily stains.
Surfactant has complex chemistry, and most cleaning products are applied with more than one kind of surfactant. Surfactants are classified by the ‘chemical charge’ of their water-soluble end:
Ionic (surfactant that have a charge)
An ionic surfactant is one that has an electric charge such as tridecyl alcohol C10 ethoxylates.
There are three types of ionic surfactant:
Anionic (negatively charged)
Cationic (positive charge)
Amphoteric (contains a positive and negative charge)
Anionic surfactant are widely applied in laundry detergents, handwashes, kitchen cleaners, body washes. They are the most widely used and versatile surfactant. They have the strong ability at removing oily residue. But, everything has its pros and cons. Anionic surfactant has the risk of causing skin irritation.
Nonionic (no charge)
Nonionic surfactants contain no charge. They are widely found in laundry and dishwasher detergents. They are the second most widely used surfactants only next to anionic. Because of no charge they are less likely to form a ‘soap scum’ in hard water. They have poorer cleaning ability at removing stains than anionic, but for some people cause less skin irritation.
If anionic are the most popular surfactants, nonionic are followed tightly, widely found in a range of cleaning, personal care, and disinfectant products as well as industrial processes. The most common anionic surfactants are:
Cocamide monoethanolamine (Cocamide MEA)
Cocamide diethanolamine (Cocamide DEA)
Fatty alcohol ethoxylates
In areas with hard water (high mineral content), nonionic surfactants have more shares in the market as they are less likely to shape a soap scum. The nonionic surfactants are less likely to cause skin irritation which is closely associated with its less potent cleaning ability.
Most cleaning products combine anionic with nonionic surfactant to balance cleaning potential with the potential risk of skin irritation.
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