Posted by Trevor Smith on July 22nd, 2012
Personal care products contain a lot of ingredients to soften your skin, moisturize, and condition your hair. So what exactly gives your shampoos, body washes and other personal care products the properties you want? One of the most prominent ingredients that provide these properties is surfactants. They make your products mix smoothly, foam nicely, grab dirt and keep them from separating.
How do they work?
Surfactants are molecules that have two distinct sections. One that likes water and mixes easily with water, the other that dislikes water and mixes easily with other ingredients that don’t like water.
Usually, two liquids with very different characteristics don’t mix because similar particles stay and are held together. Personal care products contain a wide range of ingredient, some of which have very different properties. That’s where surfactants come in. Many molecules of these surfactants act to make it easier for different substances to mix by arranging its water hating end with ingredients that dislike water and its water liking end with the water liking ingredients. That way, it acts as a bridge between water hating and water loving ingredients. These characteristics allow surfactants to serve roles like:
Emulsifiers that arrange around different oils to form droplets that can be mixed and they will stay in suspension (mixed) more easily.
Solubilizing agents can take small quantities of liquids that don’t mix and mix them, in a similar matter as emulsifiers, with water into a clear solution
Sudsing agents work by aligning the surfactant along the surface of water and air so that the thin layer of water that surrounds the air in a bubble is more stable. That way the suds and bubbles in soaps and shampoos last longer.
Detergents mix with dirt and grease, arranging around them so they are more soluble in water. Water can now pull the dirt away from your clothing and carry it away.
Conditioning agents work slightly differently by having an oily portion that helps your skin feel healthy and a portion that will allow the surfactant to stay on your skin.
Surfactants: Good or Bad?
So you may ask, what effect do these chemicals have on you? Well, it depends on the surfactant being used. Many of the most prevalent surfactants strip the skin of its own oils. As a result they irritate the skin and they also may be toxic to humans and the natural environment. Their production method may introduce harmful contaminants into your household products. Whereas, some other surfactants, often derived from natural oils, are much softer on you and the environment.
Here are some examples of surfactants that you should avoid:
-Polyethylene glycols (PEG)
-Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
What Can I do?
Currently cosmetic chemists are working to create greener and safer naturally derived surfactants. However, there are still many harmful surfactants used in personal care products. Take a look the label and review the ingredients in many of your personal care products at the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database to see how safe they are. If a product is not on the database, then you can use their “Build Your Own Report” function to fully assess the risk of that product.
At Green Cricket, one component of our product evaluation system is an evaluation of its ingredients. We use the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, along with other tools to ensure that our products have the qualities you need while being safe for you and the world around you.