When it comes to the cleaning industry, surfactants are the most versatile additives used to create optimized cleaning formulations. The term surfactant is derived from the phrase “surface active agent.” Surfactants reduce the surface tension between two liquids and the interfacial tension between a liquid and a solid. This reduction leads to an increase in spreading and wetting capability, giving much better cleaning results.
Surfactants are most commonly used as wetting agents in the form of soaps and detergents for cleansing oil and dirt from a surface, but are also used in solubilizing, dispersing and foaming applications.
How Do Surfactant Additives Work?
Surfactants are amphiphilic, meaning they have both hydrophobicity (water repelling) and hydrophilic (soluble in water) properties. Some surfactants, like Aqua-Cleen®, tend to be more water-friendly while others, like Micro-Cleen™ 12-7, are more oil-friendly.
Surfactants can absorb on a liquid-liquid, gas-liquid or liquid-solid interface and align themselves accordingly. As the surfactant absorbs, the tension (surface or interfacial) and the work required per unit area to separate the two phases from each other, decreases. This is why surfactants work so well in cleaning formulations. The reduction in tension is what leads to better cleaning.
For example, surfactants can lower the surface tension in your laundry detergent so that water can get between the fabric fibers much easier. Surfactants can also lower the surface tension of agricultural treatments so that nutrients can be more readily absorbed by the plant.
Anionic and Nonionic Surfactant Additives
There are quite a few different surfactant additives that are utilized for various reasons. However, the most common types used in society are anionic and nonionic surfactants. Anionic is a negatively charged surfactant that is commonly found in cleaning products and is effective at removing oily residue as well as particulate soil (clay, dirt). It can, however, cause skin irritations.
Nonionic surfactants, such as Aqua-Cleen®, have no charge and are often found in food, laundry, dishwasher detergents as well as in degreasers and many hard surface cleaning applications. Nonionic surfactants have better cleaning properties than other surfactant types. They are less likely to form soap scum in hard water and generally do not cause skin irritations.
In most cases, cleaning and body contacting products use a combination of both surfactant types to balance the cleaning potential while reducing the probability of skin problems. Generally, they are successful, but sometimes those with sensitive skin can still have undesirable impacts.
Products That May Contain Surfactant Additives
You can find surfactant additives, both anionic and nonionic in a magnitude of different products, such as:
Surfactant additives are a vital performance element for many products around the world. Without surfactant additives, we would have a much more challenging time with general cleaning tasks such as washing our hair or cleaning our homes. Additionally, businesses using surfactant technologies in paint and coatings, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural applications would also suffer greatly. The use of surfactants continues to grow at a rapid pace around the world as manufacturers and formulators seek to improve their existing products or develop new products for future applications. The global surfactants market is estimated to exceed $65 billion by 2025.
Because there is some concern about surfactant chemicals and toxicity, strictly adhering to the guidelines of use provided by the surfactant manufacturer is recommended. Doing so will maintain proper biodegradability and classification of the final product formulation.