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How Do Surfactants Work?
December 05, 2019

Independent Chemical Corporation offers a wide range of surfactants for a variety of applications.  Surfactants, or surface-active agents, are a primary component of cleaning detergents and are found in many of the products we use in our daily lives.

Surfactants act to reduce tension at the surface or interface between two different phases or substances.  By stirring up activity on the surface, they help to trap dirt and remove it.  They are able to act in this way because they contain both a hydrophilic (water loving) group, such as an acid anion, and a hydrophobic (water hating) group, such as an alkyl chain. Molecules of water tend to congregate near the former and molecules of the water-insoluble material congregate near the latter.  Surfactants can also act as a medium between oil and water, making them ideal as detergents, dispersants, emulsifiers, and biocides. 

When there is a sufficient concentration of surfactant molecules in a solution, these molecules combine together to form structures called micelles.  As micelles form, the surfactant heads position themselves so that they are exposed to water, while the tails are positioned in the center of the structure where they are protected from water.  The micelles work as a unit to remove soils and debris.  The hydrophobic tails are attracted to soils and surround them, while the hydrophilic heads pull the now surrounded soils off of the surface and into the solution.  The micelles then reform with the tails suspending the soil in the center of the structure. 

The hydrophilic head of each surfactant is electrically charged.  The charge can be negative, positive, or neutral, and based on the charge a surfactant can be anionic, nonionic, cationic, or amphoteric.  These four categories are summarized as follows:

  • Anionic: negative charge at the hydrophilic head
  • Nonionic: no charge at the hydrophilic head
  • Cationic: positive charge at the hydrophilic head
  • Amphoteric: both positive and negative charges at the hydrophilic head

Anionic surfactants are frequently used in soaps and detergents because they are able to attack a broad range of soils.  They create a lot of foam when mixed, and are excellent at lifting and suspending particulate soils, but are not as good at emulsifying oily soils.  Sulfates, sulfonates, and gluconates are all examples of anionic surfactants. 

Nonionic surfactants are very good at emulsifying oils and are better than anionic surfactants at removing organic soils.  Nonionic and anionic surfactants are sometimes used together in order to create dual-action multipurpose cleaners.  Certain nonionic surfactants are non-foaming or low-foaming, making them a good choice for low-foaming detergents.  Ethoxylates, alkoxylates, and coamides are examples of nonionic surfactants.

Cationic surfactants are useful in anti-static products such as fabric softeners, and can also serve as antimicrobial agents in disinfectants.  They are not compatible with anionic surfactants since mixing positively charged with negatively charged surfactants will cause them to fall out of solution and no longer be effective.   Cationic and nonionic surfactants are compatible.  Alkyl ammonium chlorides are anionic surfactants.

Amphoteric surfactants’ dual charges cancel each other out creating a net zero charge, referred to as zwitterionic.  In acidic solutions, amphoteric surfactants become positively charged and behave similarly to cationic surfactants, while in alkaline solutions they become negatively charged and behave similarly to anionic surfactants.  Amphoteric surfactants are often used in shampoos and cosmetics.  Betaines and amino oxides are examples of amphoteric surfactants. 

Independent Chemical is proud to offer an ever expanding range of products for customers that include the world’s most sought after consumer and industrial brand names, in such product areas as nutrition, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, environmental services, and more.  Contact us today to request a quote or to place an order.


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