What is a Surfactant?

Q. What is a surfactant?

A. Good question as these are key constituents of typical aqueous detergents.  Other typical components of aqueous cleaners are, chelators, builders and additives (ex. corrosion inhibition).

Surfactant is short for “surface active agent,” it is an organic molecule with a hydrophobic (water-hating/oil-loving) end and a hydrophilic (water-loving) end.  Surfactants are often emulsifiers, wetting agents, and dispersants. The most common surfactant is sodium Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate (called LAS for short). The alkylbenzene portion of the molecule is the hydrophobic/oleophilic end of this surfactant and the negatively charged sulfonate molecule is the hydrophilic end of the molecule. Surfactants are typically classified as anionic, nonionic, and cationic. The class of surfactant determines the class of the cleaner.

In the context of cleaning, the surfactant lowers the surface tension at liquid/gas, liquid/liquid, and liquid/solid interfaces.  The structure of surface active agents, used in aqueous cleaners, is usually oblong. The hydrophilic end of the molecule is attracted to and remains stable in water; while the hydrophobic end is attracted to air, particulate, oil or surface, and away from water where it is less stable. This means that a surface active agent can act as a wetting agent helping a cleaner wet a surface or penetrate into small cracks and crevices where it can perform.

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