Have you ever used a product like soap and wondered how it actually works? Why does soap bubble up and separate when it interacts with water? How does it clean oil and grime off of dishes?
There are ingredients in those products that have the qualities of a property known as a surfactant that allows the soap to bubble and perform its function.
Surfactants are actually used in a variety of different products, many of which are common household items. But just what is a surfactant, and what does it do? What functions does it serve?
We are here to explain exactly what a surfactant is, how it works, and some common examples of surfactants in the world.
What is a Surfactant?
A surfactant (aka a surface-active agent) is a substance that, when added to a liquid, reduces its surface tension, thereby increasing its spreading and wetting properties.
These are substances that create self-assembled molecular clusters called micelles in a solution (water or oil phase) and adsorb to the interface between a solution and a different phase (gases/solids).
To show these two physical properties, a surfactant must have a chemical structure with two different functional groups with different affinities within the same molecule.
A common example of this in practice is a detergent. When a detergent is added to a liquid, it causes a reaction that reduces the surfactant’s surface tension, which increases its spreading and wetting properties. Other examples of surfactants are germicides, fungicides, and insecticides.
How do Surfactants Work?
Surfactants work to disperse something in order to spread the material in an even and level place. The surface-active molecule of the surfactant must be partly hydrophilic (water-soluble) and partly lipophilic (soluble in lipids or oils).
Think back to the detergent example we discussed. When the detergent is exposed to water, it soaps up and spreads within the water while working with the lipids within the formula.
It concentrates at the interfaces between bodies or droplets of water and those of oil or lipids to act as an emulsifying agent or foaming agent. So, when the detergent hits the water, it begins to soap up to its interactions.
Other surfactants that are more lipophilic and less hydrophilic may be used as defoaming agents or as demulsifiers.
Uses of Surfactants
Surfactants are used for many purposes, including:
- corrosion inhibition
- in ore flotation
- to promote oil flow in porous rocks
- to produce products like aerosols
These can also include products like herbicides, pesticides, and soaps. Most surfactants used in pest control are non-ionic, meaning they will not bubble up (like dish and laundry soaps do).
Another category surfactants are used in is the beauty space. Certain products geared towards skin and hair can be surfactants, such as wetting agents in perms, foaming agents in shampoos, emulsifiers in certain creams, and solubilizers for perfumes and scents.
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