Let’s talk surfactants

In a laundry detergent and many cleaning products, be it body care or household cleansers, Surfactants are compounds that are needed to remove dirt, grease and oil. They can be called emulsifiers, foaming agents or simply soap, but in every application, however you label it, the basic behaviour of a surfactant is the same. To remove crud from the surface of whatever you are cleaning. Quite simply, what makes surfactants, a surfactant is that they are actively working to remove surface agents (a.k.a. dirt) deposited on your clothing, (which is where the word is derived from). Bonus points if you remember this for trivia night.

A surfactants job

Let’s break it down. So, let’s say you spill some salad dressing on your shirt, or you run a mud hero marathon. Whether it’s salad dressing oil, or dirt and sweat, these liquids are absorbed into the fabric of your clothing. A surfactants job is to bind and absorb these materials on your clothing, in between the layers of oil and water. A surfactant, depending on the chemical composition, if it is Anionic, Nonionic or Cationic will suspend, change or break down the contents to be removed by water.  Laundry detergents use surfactants as one of the main ingredients for cleaning, so you can imagine all the surfactants that are released back into the water and why people are starting to care. (You should too because water is sort of important for drinking and living and stuff).

From the origins of the most basic of laundry detergent, to the high tech world of complicated chemical slurries of surfactants, there are essential components of laundry detergent that bring it all together. In it, you should have ingredients that remove your stink of the day, fight stains, kill odour causing bacteria, brighten, maintain proper PH levels and work with all the different minerals found in the vastly varying water systems of the world. Oh yah and it has to work! Throw in cloth diapering and now you have pee-pee and poo-poo and dozens of synthetic and non-synthetic materials to contend with.  No wonder there are so many different opinions and ‘experts’ on ‘the best’ way to launder!

When dissecting surfactants for environmental and safety purposes, you can find your answers on the ingredients list. Understanding an ingredients label takes a bit of green washing translation. Unfortunately, labeling laws are incredibly slack where companies are not ruled by any governing body to disclose what exactly their ingredients entail. A company, for example my simply put ‘surfactant’ on their ingredients list, or ‘Soap ingredients’ which could be a single chemical or dozens of combined chemicals. Typically, you’re looking at 3 categories: Natural surfactants, naturally derived surfactants and synthetic or petroleum based surfactants.

Natural surfactants

Natural Surfactants are derived from vegetable or animal fats such as olive, palm kernel or coconut oil, or tallow. Soap from the earliest conception was made with animal fats and wood ash. Soap production needs fats or fatty acids to bind with sodium hydroxide (ever seen ‘Fight Club’?) to solidify. This combination called ‘Saponification’, is one of the most timeless ways to clean your clothing and your body. It is called soap.  You know, like that bar stuff? It is the old school, original cool. Soaps made with Certified organic fixed or base oils are always cold-pressed from fresh fruit and seeds/nuts to preserve the beneficial phytonutrients that are vital to skin health. Cold-pressed oils and natural waxes have been safely used by humans for thousands of years. Natural surfactants can include:

Castile and vegetable based Soaps
Animal based soaps (technically still a natural surfactant although far better to use vegetable based soaps)
Yucca Extract
Quillaja Bark Extract

Naturally derived surfactants

Throughout time and as more technology came along, companies found ways to modify soap ingredients, isolate certain components and even Frankenstein some of them with little or under tested safety procedures.  Why? Because soap making, is a process and by human nature, we’re always looking for something cheaper and easier. Some of these chemicals have not been tested since 1976, and unleashed quietly into the public’s eye and into natural watersheds.  Only in recent years have we been discovering that some of these ingredients are actual skin irritants and worse, have done immeasurable damage to our water and aquatic life.

Naturally derived surfactants may be modified from coconut oil or other fatty acid plant based ingredients and isolated, hydrogenated and reconstructed to alter the molecular structure. This is where a lot of companies can get away with manipulating their ingredients list. Some companies are quite transparent about what they use, which is phenomenal, however some companies will use this ‘naturally derived plant base’ term to make you think you’re making great environmental choices. In reality, though some better than others, the majority of naturally derived surfactants are very toxic to aquatic life, are known carcinogens or rated very high as a skin irritant. So, not so natural.

Synthetic/Petrochemical based surfactants

Synthetic surfactants are modern chemicals; most are created under very energy-intensive conditions with high usage of fossil fuels (more air water pollution- yuck) The manufacturing process of these new ingredients change the natural vegetable oil composition into new molecules that are typically not found in nature.  Even very low concentrations of synthetic surfactants in surface water can be highly toxic to all forms of aquatic life.

If you are unsure of a certain chemical on your laundry list, try researching on their website www.ewg.org and read up!

Here is a list of naturally derived, synthetic and petrochemical based surfactants as well as hidden terms that you may find on your ingredients label at home.

Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES) 
Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS) 
Disodium Dioctyl Sulfosuccinate 
Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate 
Disodium Oleamide Sulfosuccinate 
Laureth or Lauryl Sulfate 
Lauryl or Cocoyl Sarcosine 
Potassium Coco Hydrolysed Collagen 
Sodium Cocoyl Sarcosinate 
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) 
Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate 
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) 
Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate 
Triethanolamine (TEA)
Alcohol, Isopropyl
Benzalkonium Chloride 
Cetalkonium Chloride 
Cetrimonium Chloride
acetylated lanolin alcohol
butyl adipate
butylene glycol
capric/caprylic triglyceride
ceteareth-2 glyceryl monostearate
cetearyl alcohol
cetearyl glucoside
cetearyl isononanoate
cetearyl octanoate
cetyl alcohol
cetyl esters
cetyl palmitate
coconut fatty acids
decyl oleate
disodium cocoamphodiacetate
ethylhexyl glycerine
emulsifying wax
eucerin (petroleum jelly)
fat alcohol (cetearyl alcohol) 
fatty acids
glyceryl cocoate
glyceryl stearate 
potassium stearate
hydrated palm glycerides
hydrogenated oils
isobutyl stearate
isopropyl lanolate
isopropyl myristate
jojoba butter/wax (hydrogenated jojoba oil)
lanolin linoleate
lauryl lactate
methyl glucose dioleate
mineral oil
non-vegetable glycerine or glycerol
octyl palmitate
oleth 2
plant emulsifying wax
stearic acid
stearyl alcohol
vegetable emulsifying wax
Lauryl Dimonium Hydrolysed Collagen 
Stearalkonium Chloride

Why you should care

It comes down to performance vs. accountability.

Let’s say you like apples. Who doesn’t, right?! Let’s say you take an apple, dehydrate it, turn it into a powder, boil it, boil it again and add petrochemicals, waxes, hydrogenated oils, formaldehyde, dioxins and about 50 other chemicals. Then add waxes, polymers, flavors and dyes to reconstruct it into the shape of an apple. Is the end result still an apple? Do you feel comfortable letting your children eat that apple?

Do natural laundry detergents work as well as commercial brands? Some do and some don’t. Some natural brands don’t have enough surfactant action and require a little more elbow grease. If you haven’t found the right natural brand or even tried, do you feel comfortable using questionable chemicals that may contain cancer causing ingredients that pollute healthy water? Does performance outweigh the risk of carcinogens on your skin and the slow deterioration of future generation’s healthy water? The power of being a consumer is much more powerful than we think. In reality, no one should have to choose between safety and efficacy, and luckily there are brands where you can have both because they care too. Millions of consumers are making the switch, while most of the petrochemical based surfactants are banned or being petitioned to be banned in many parts of the world.

We are living in a world where turning a blind eye does not mean the problem goes away. And, for the most of us, we are visual creatures who need visual examples and experiences to make us change. We don’t actively see what is happening to our planet or our health until there is a big problem. But, at least we can be part of the solution instead of aggravating the problem.

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