What Is Surfactant and How Do Surfactants Work?

Posted On: June 26, 2018

What are surfactants?

The term surfactant was originally coined by Antara Products in the 1950sa to stand for SURFace-ACTive-AgeNT, which is an attempt to explain ‘how surfactants work’.  This generalization basically denotes that this general classification of compounds tends to interact at the interface of two immiscible phases (i.e. oil and water).  By inhabiting the surface of two distinct phases, these compounds have the unique ability to lower the surface tension between the two immiscible portions, resulting in a new set of solution properties.

How do surfactants work?

The chemical structure of this class of compounds is commonly comprised of a two (or more) part-system, including distinct lipophilic and non-lipophilic areas within the same molecule.  More generally, these types of compounds have water-soluble (non-lipophilic) and water-insoluble (lipophilic) portions distinctly segregated within a single molecule.

By having these contrasting sections with the same compound, a single molecule can inhabit the interface of two immiscible phases (i.e. oil and water), effectively bringing them closer together and lowering the interfacial energy associated between them.  By lowering this energy, many novel solution applications can be accessed by increasing the homogeneity of these two previously immiscible phases.

For instance, one of the most common uses of surfactants is to increase the dispersion of dirt and oils in water during the cleaning process, making these unwanted oils easier to remove from dirty surfaces (e.g. dirty dishware, clothes or even an oily face).  Surfactants find their way into a variety of industrial and commercial applications, and due to the plethora of varieties of surfactants, they can be engineered to fit just about any manufacturing need.

Contact Oxiteno today to get more information about which of our surfactants are right for your next application.

Types of surfactants

Surfactants can be generally broken down into four classes based on the charge of the water-soluble portion of the surfactant.  The four classes include nonionic (no charge), anionic (negative charge), cationic (positive charge), and amphoteric (containing both a positive and a negative charge).  The type of surfactant chosen depends on the inherent solution properties and end-use application.

Many of these compounds provide exceptional properties to a formulation and to market segments as a whole including low-foaming surfactants, rapid-wetting properties, water soluble surfactants, and foaming agent manufacturers.  While surfactants affect just about all industrial markets and processes, the most common surfactant industries and surfactant markets that are served include agrochemicals, home and personal care, industrial and institutional (I&I), oil and gas, and paints/coatings.

Common surfactant uses

The following are common uses of surfactants that span several industries. The application of surfactants for these industries and products is mainly to act as an emulsifier and solubilizing agent.

Surfactants in Shampoo

surfactants in shampoo

Surfactants are an essential ingredient in many personal care products including those used in one’s daily personal hygiene care (shampoos, soaps, shower gels, tooth paste, etc.), as well as, keeping your skin feeling smooth, hydrated, and blemish free (lotions, creams, face wash, foundation, etc.).

For instance, many shampoos require the use of surfactants, (in many cases more than 30% of the shampoo itself) to provide many beneficial properties.  The properties gained by the incorporation of surfactants into a shampoo include cleansing, detergency, and rheology modification.  Many shampoos use a variety, if not all, of the surfactants from the aforementioned classes.  For instance, anionic surfactants, such as sulfates, carboxylic acids, sulfonic acids, and phosphoric acid derivatives, provide the lather and detergency of shampoos.  Nonionic surfactants in shampoos are typically added to act as emulsifiers, and, are added to perfumes as solubilizing agents. Cationic surfactants are commonly used in hair conditioners but are more readily being used in shampoos to increase smoothness of the hair.

Lastly, amphoteric surfactants are milder than anionic surfactants, and are therefore commonly used as secondary surfactants, or, are used in infant-specific formulations. In addition, Oxiteno’s product line offers many natural surfactants for shampoo. Visit our products page for Personal Care Surfactants and learn more.

Surfactants in Cosmetics

Due to their unique properties, surfactants have also found their way into the cosmetic industry.  Surfactants used in cosmetics are typically used to help with the spreadability of liquid foundations, feel of creams, and humectancy of lotions.

Surfactants are commonly used to help disperse pigments in make-up and emulsify oils for skin care products.  Specifically, nonionic surfactants, due to their relative mildness, are used throughout the lotion and skin-care markets.  Anionic surfactants, such as carboxylates, are commonly used in deodorants and antiperspirants to increase dispersion and application.  Many of these surfactants are mainly derived from natural sources and are considered to be biodegradable surfactants.

Oxiteno offers a line of surfactants for cosmetics that are uniquely engineered from mainly renewable resources, making these mild surfactants safe for personal care and for the environment. Visit our products page for Personal Care and learn more.

Surfactants in Textile Processing

how do surfactants work?

Surfactants are also used extensively throughout the processing of textiles.  Surfactants in textile processing are commonly used to solubilize dyes and colorants, as well as provide post weaving processing, such as to increase the feel and hand of a garment.  Common surfactants, such as anionic surfactants, are used in high loadings within laundry detergents, while cationic surfactants (e.g. quaternary ammonium surfactants) are used in fabric softeners to increase the hand of a laundered garment.  The cleansing properties of these types of surfactants are very effective at removing unwanted dirt and oils from clothing.

Surfactants in Pharmaceutical Formulations

The pharmaceutical industry has also found surfactants to be an invaluable asset to their market needs, helping to improve product stability, wetting properties, solubilization, detergency, and drug penetration.  Surfactants are a vital aspect of the manufacturing process of pharmaceutical products, including the ability to disperse lipophilic drugs into a water media, making them acceptable for oral consumption.

pharmaceutical surfactants

For instance, many pharmaceutical surfactants are used in gel-capsules and tablets.  Similar compounds can help to solubilize phenolic derivatives such as cresol, chlorocresol, chloroxylenol and thymol to form clear solutions for use in disinfection. These surfactant compounds are also used as wetting agents and emulsifiers to aid in the dissolution of water-insoluble drugs and emulsion concentrates. Surfactants, such as polysorbates, are also used to solubilize vitamins for oral consumption.

Surfactants in Agrochemicals

Oxiteno also serves the agrochemical market with innovative technologies to enhance the efficacy of pesticides by offering surfactants—most commonly nonionic surfactants—to increase spreading, wetting, sticking, and penetration of the pesticide on the leaf’s surface. In some pesticide formulations, surfactants are used to decrease the particle size and disperse solid pesticide particles in suspension-concentrate formulations.  Surfactants are also used in the agrochemical market to emulsify oils and aid as tank mix compatibilizers (some anionic and/or amphoteric surfactants) in the presence of hard water to further increase the efficacy of pesticides.  Oxiteno specializes in agrochemical formulation development, and the US research and development team is well-equipped to help customers develop new formulations that increase crop yield and decrease environmental impact. Visit our products page for Agrochemicals to learn more.

Surfactants in Household and Industrial & Institutional Cleaning

Surfactants are also used in home care, as well as, industrial and institutional markets to produce household and industrial cleaning products (detergents, fabric conditioners, floor and surface cleaners, air fresheners, etc.). The type of surfactant used is heavily dependent on the end performance and properties of the manufactured goods, but, are typically added to provide cleaning, wetting, foaming, emulsifier, and dispersing properties. Oxiteno’s research and development offers the necessary instrumentation and experience to aid in the selection of any particular product that could be most beneficial and effective for any cleansing process. Visit our products page for Home Care and I&I Surfactants to learn more.

Surfactants in Oil & Gas and Paints & Coatings

common surfactant uses

Oxiteno also serves other markets, such as oil & gas, by offering non-emulsifiers and flow-back aids (non-ionic surfactants) as well as corrosion inhibitors (cationic surfactants) used in drilling and fracking to increase oil recovery. Furthermore, alcohol ethoxylates, sulfosuccinates, and alkanolamines are widely used in the Paints and Coatings Surfactants market as emulsifying and stabilizing agents to reduce the particle size and prevent settling of polymeric particles in latex paints.  Oxiteno’s location in the US Gulf puts us in an ideal location to rapidly study and develop innovative products for the Oil and Gas Surfactants market. The research and development team are working with industry leaders to create safe alternatives for these sectors, which increase yield and efficiency of the oil and gas extraction processes.

The ability to manufacture these products to conform to the necessary regulations to ensure a safe product that has minimal impact on the environment requires a company that has the correct mindset and manufacturing capabilities to safely engineer these compounds that affect our everyday lives. Oxiteno recognizes that global infrastructure alone is not enough to ensure the sustainability and well-being of our planet, which is why the people of Oxiteno are committed to making safer, more environmentally-friendly products for all markets served.

Oxiteno is helping to evolve markets to increase the bio-renewable content of surfactants, as well as, pushing the boundaries of innovation while protecting the future of our environment and communities.  We aim to decrease our carbon footprint on the environment while continuing to provide our markets with the most efficient, cost-effective, and safe surfactant-based products.

Check out our Products Page or contact Oxiteno today to learn more about how Oxiteno’s surfactants can serve you.


a- Rahman, Pattanathu KSM, and Kamaljeet K. Sekhon Randhawa. “Microbiotechnology based surfactants and their applications.” Frontiers in microbiology 6 (2015): 1344.