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Surfactant 101 Series

This post is the first in our Surfactant 101 series. We’ve discussed surfactants in other posts, but in this series, we’ll be focusing on surfactant basics. We’ll also be explaining the differences among the four major surfactant categories: nonionic, anionic, cationic, and amphoteric. But first . . .

What is a Surfactant?

Surfactant (Surface Active Agent) is a molecule that includes both water loving (hydrophilic) and oil loving (lipophilic) parts.

As an amphiphile, the surfactant molecules will accumulate at the air and water interface and reduce the surface tension of water at low concentrations. When oils are present, the hydrophilic end of the surfactant is attracted to water, and the lipophilic (or hydrophobic) end to the oil layer. When the mixture is agitated, the surfactant molecules will surround the oil globules, forming micelles.

Surfactants serve a variety of purposes in the specialty chemical field, including wetting and spreading in detergents and cleaners, solubilizing and suspending soils, emulsification, viscosity modification, foam control, and improving coupling or compatibility in formulations.

Next post in series: Nonionic Surfactants