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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 behavior 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, oil, grease etc.) deposited on your clothing, (which is where the word is derived from). Bonus points if you remember this for trivia night.

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 odor 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 are derived from vegetable or animal fats such as olive, palm kernel or coconut oil or  animal tallow base. 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 way to clean. 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 with a high convenience factor. Some of these chemicals have not been tested since 1976 and unleashed quietly into the public’s eye 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.

Potassium Coco Hydrolysed Collagen
Sodium Cocoyl Sarcosinate
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate 

Coconut fatty acids/fatty acids

Hydrated palm glycerides
Hydrogenated oils

Vegetable emulsifying wax 

Cetyl palmitate 

Glyceryl cocoate 

Isopropyl lanolate 

Natural foaming agents

Synthetic/Petrochemical based surfactants: Synthetic and petrochemical 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 most forms of aquatic life.

If you are unsure of a certain chemical on your laundry list, try researching on their website and read up! There are many synthetic surfactants that are less harmful than others, but whether or not you want to use them is personal opinion based on your own research.

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
Triethanolamine (TEA)


Benzalkonium Chloride
Cetalkonium Chloride

Acetylated Lanolin Alcohol

Capric/Caprylic Triglyceride


Mineral Oil
Cetrimonium Chloride

Why you should care:

It comes down to performance vs. accountability.


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