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A Simple Guide to Uunderstanding Surfactants

Apr. 01, 2022

Surfactants are the main component of cleaning agents. The term surfactant refers to a surface-active agent. As the name implies, surfactants stimulate the activity of the surface you are cleaning to help trap dirt and remove it from the surface.

Surfactants have a hydrophobic (water-repellent) tail and a hydrophilic (water-loving) head. The hydrophobic tail of each surfactant surrounds the soil. The hydrophilic head is surrounded by water.

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Types of surfactants

The hydrophilic head of each surfactant is electrically charged. The charge can be negative, positive or neutral. Depending on the charge of the hydrophilic head, surfactants are classified as anionic, nonionic, cationic or amphoteric.

Anionic surface activity

Anionic surfactants have a negative charge at their hydrophilic end. The negative charge helps the surfactant molecules lift and suspend fouling in micelles. Because of their ability to attack a wide range of soils, anionic surfactants are often used in soaps and detergents. When mixed, anionic surfactants produce a large amount of foam. While anionic surfactants are excellent for lifting and suspending particulate soils, they are not as effective at emulsifying oil-based soils.

Sulfates, sulfonates and gluconates are examples of anionic surfactants.

alkylphenol ethoxylates-apeos

alkylphenol ethoxylates-apeos

Nonionic surfactants   

Nonionic surfactants are neutral, and they do not have any charge at the hydrophilic end. Nonionic surfactants are very good at emulsifying oils and are superior to anionic surfactants in removing organic dirt. The two are often used together to create dual-action, multi-purpose cleaners. Some nonionic surfactants can be non-foaming or low foaming. This makes them ideal for use as low foaming detergent ingredients.

Some common examples of nonionic surfactants include cocoamides, ethoxylates, and alkoxylates.

castor oil ethoxylates

castor oil ethoxylates

Cationic surfactants

Cationic surfactants have a positive charge at their hydrophilic end. The positive charge allows them to be used in antistatic products, such as fabric softeners. Cationic surfactants can also be used as antimicrobial agents and are therefore commonly used in disinfectants.

Cationic surfactants cannot be used together with anionic surfactants. If positively charged cationic surfactants are mixed with negatively charged anionic surfactants, they will fall out of solution and are no longer effective.

Some common examples of cationic surfactants include alkyl ammonium chloride.

How surfactants clean

Surfactants are key ingredients in cleaning products. One thing that distinguishes cleaning products is how they are made. A cleaner made from a single chemical for a specific type of soil is called a commercial cleaner. Cleaners made from a blend of chemicals designed to work in concert to remove various types of soils are called formulated cleaners.

Formulated cleaners typically contain four basic elements: a surfactant, a water soluble booster, a detergent aid, and a carrier. Water soluble booster is the chemical that keeps otherwise incompatible surfactants and detergent aids stable in solution. Carriers are water or solvents. These elements work together to produce a mechanical action that removes dirt. The end result is a product that can attack surface dirt through a variety of cleaning mechanisms, including emulsification, lifting, dispersion, isolation, suspension, and breakdown of various types of dirt.

SANCOLO offers a full line of formulated cleaners that are among the safest and most effective solutions on the market. Request a free sample to test the suitability of our products for your most challenging cleaning applications.


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