How many products do you use on a regular basis yet really never understand how they work? Which brings us to a a question; What are surfactants and why do they matter? Surfactants are a common ingredient in cleaning detergents and related products. They are added primarily to remove stains such as dirt from skin, clothing, and household products. Their name is derived from three words- surface, active, and agent. Surfactants function by eliminating the interface between stains and water, which is due to the fact that they contain both hydrophilic (agents which dissolve in water) and hydrophobic (agents which aggregate in water) compounds. Most historians suggest that the first surfactants used by humans were naturally-occurring and derived from plants like the soapwort Saponaria officianalis. Some organic surfactants such as these are still used today, particularly in specialized detergents for delicate fabrics.Hydrophilic and hydrophobic chemicals alter the properties of water. They lower its surface tension, which enable the cleaning solution to dampen the fabric quickly. This allows for the stains to be loosened and removed from the fabric with the help of a mechanical action. Surfactants emulsify oily stains and prevent them from settling back on the fabric. Numerous different detergents contain two or more different types of surfactants, and they tend to be categorized by their ionic properties while in water.

Types of Surfactants

One type of surfactant are anionic surfactants; which can be found in many different dishwashing soaps, household cleaning solutions, and personal hygiene products. They ionize in a solution, which means that they convert to electrical particles, and possess a negative charge. Anionic surfactants contain exceptional cleaning abilities and often create lots of suds. Linear alkylbenzene sulfonate, alcohol ethoxysulfates, and alkyl sulfates are a few of the most common anionic surfactants. On the other hand, nonionic surfactants do not ionize; and consequently have no electrical charge. However, they do often bond with anionic particles. A benefit of nonionic surfactants is that they don’t interact with magnesium and/or calcium ions in “hard’ water {water with a high mineral content}. Cationic surfactants ionize in a solution and have a positive charge. They tend to be an ingredient in fabric softening products. Amphoteric surfactants are identified by their mild nature, tendency to form suds, and their stability. Unlike other surfactants, amphoteric surfactants can actually be anionic (negative charge), cationic (positive charge), or nonionic (no electrical charge whatsoever). Their charge depends on the pH balance of the water.



Boosting The Efficiency of Surfactants

Builders are a similar type of substance that maintain and boost the efficiency of the surfactants. Breaking down “hard” water is their primary function in detergents. They accomplish this in a variety of ways. It can be sequestration, which means that they retain the hard minerals in the water. Another method is through precipitation, meaning that it forms an insoluble substance. Finally, it can take place via an exchange of ions; which means that they trade charged ions with the other components of the solution.  Builders are also capable of providing and maintaining alkalinity, meaning that they boost the efficiency of the cleaning function; especially with acid soils, and they prevent the stains from reforming during the washing cycle. Additionally, they often have the ability to emulsify oily stains.


Surfactant Applications

Surfactants are used in a multitude of applications, ranging from petrochemistry to laundry detergents. Soap was the first surfactant used by humans, and remains the most common application of surfactants in general. Recent figures project that soap manufacturing claims 30% of the global surfactant market today. They’re found in oil fields for their foaming properties; where they’re used in drilling fluids, acidizing and stimulating agents, drill cutting, well cutting, and enhanced drilling methods, just to name a few. Mineral processors utilize surfactants to float mineral ore and modify crystal habitats. Metalworkers use surfactants to emulsify and dampen materials, inhibit corrosion, stabilize hard water; as well as lubricants and detergents. Paper mills use surfactants in the pulping and processing phases; as well as to emulsify. They’re also used to remove ink, remove suds, and clean felt. Other industries that use surfactants include agriculture, textiles, paints, coatings, construction, emulsion polymerization, food, plastics, and explosives. Such a wide and diverse spectrum of applications is certainly an indication of just how versatile and useful surfactants can be. Knowingly or not, nearly every human will use at least one surfactant of some sort every day.