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What Are Surfactants, What Types Are There & How Do They Work?

Surfactants, by definition, are active on surfaces or interfaces and able to modify their properties. An interface is the junction between two incompatible phases — usually, liquid, solid or gas.

Surfactants can reduce the surface tension of a liquid, making it more likely to spread across a surface. They can also reduce the tension between two incompatible liquids, making them easier to mix.

As a leading UK chemical specialist, we discuss surfactants — what they are, how they work and what types there are.

So — what are surfactants? How do surfactants work?

The most common application of surfactants is in detergents used in the home; they remove dirt from skin, clothes and other surfaces. The word itself comes from the term ‘Surface Active Agent’.

Surfactants are active on surfaces or interfaces and able to modify their properties. To understand what this means, we first need to understand that an interface is the junction between two incompatible phases usually, liquid, solid or gas.

Surfactants can reduce the surface tension of a liquid making it more likely to spread across a surface, or reduce the tension between two incompatible liquids making them easier to mix.

The kind of surfactant you need will very much depend on the application, as there are different types for different tasks.

What Are the Different Types of Surfactant?

Depending on the use, you may require one of many different types of surfactant, such as: low foam, high foam, thickened, pH or substantive.

Let’s take a look and some common surfactant examples, types and their uses.

Anionic surfactants

These surfactants containing anionic (negatively charged ions) are insoluble at low temperature levels and have hydrophobic anion effects when dissolved in warmer water.

They are able to attack a range of soils, so are excellent for household use. Anionic surfactants are most commonly used in the manufacturing of cleaning and detergent products.

They are also used in other industries such as textiles, agriculture and construction for applications such as dyeing, bleaching, demulsifying, corrosion prevention and as a fuel additive.

Non-ionic surfactant

This means a surfactant which has no ionization when dissolved in water. These types are therefore highly stable and have a limited reaction to acids and strong electrolytes.

Non-ionic surfactants make up almost 50% of surfactant production and have better emulsifying qualities than anionic surfactant, which means they are great for removing both oily and organic dirt.

They can be found in shampoos (thanks to their ability to aid emulsification), in perfumes and also in beauty products such as make-up, where they can aid in dispersing pigment across the skin.

Cationic Surfactants

Cationic surfactants are manufactured in smaller quantities than other surfactants, but they are the ideal surfactant for products such as fabric softeners, because when they are combined with anionic surfactants they help to break down stains and dirt.

One of the most common cationic surfactants is benzalkonium chloride (BAC), used as a preservative in eye drops and for antiseptic purposes in higher concentrations.

Amphoteric Surfactant

These are the surfactants that combine the properties of both anionic and cationic surfactants. They are fairly new to the market and are still undergoing development, and over the past few years they have presented a number of beneficial qualities including:

  • Biodegradability
  • Resistance to hard water
  • Acting as an emulsifier

These qualities, amongst many others, make amphoteric surfactants suitable for use in shampoos, dyes, pharmaceuticals and much more.

Airedale Chemical: a leading surfactants supplier and manufacturer

As experts in chemical manufacturing and supplies, we are perfectly placed to not only provide you with existing surfactants but to aid you in the research and development of new bespoke solutions.

Please explore our range of Surfactants which provides appearance, description and application information for each.

If you’d like some advice or additional information regarding your surfactants requirements, phone us on 01535 637876, email or reach us through our contact page.

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