4 Most Common Surfactants and How They Work

What you’ll learn:

  • What are surfactants?
  • How are surfactants useful?
  • The different types of surfactants 
  • About anionic surfactants
  • About amphoteric surfactants
  • About quaternary surfactants
  • About non-ionic surfactants
  • Which surfactants are used in The Hair Routine products 

As we become more conscious about the formulas of self care products, it is only natural to discuss the most common type of ingredient: surfactants. 

What are surfactants?

Surfactants are one of many different compounds that make up a detergent and have the ability to remove dirt, product buildup, and pollutants. They work by holding the buildup or dirt in suspension and allowing  the removal through rinsing. 

How are surfactants useful?

A surfactant gives a solution its cleansing ability. For example, laundry detergent has several different surfactants that help remove grease, stains, and dirt from clothes. Surfactants have the ability to dissolve substances that don’t normally dissolve with only water. 

The different types of surfactants 

Anionic surfactants

Anionic surfactants are the most common ones. They have the chemical power to remove silicone buildup and residues from the hair. “Anionic surfactants are characterized by a negatively charged hydrophilic polar group.” (Science Direct) This means that in the presence of water, they can attach to dirt or oil particles and wash them away. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is the strongest surfactant and is very effective at stripping all oils, including the natural protective ones. Unfortunately, this ingredient has been banned  in many countries from use in hygiene products due to the potential harm to human health.

Read More: The Scariest Ingredients in Your Hair Products

About Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate

Another common surfactant found in many hair care products is Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, an anionic surfactant and a cousin to the sulfates that is good at removing different magnetic buildup, but may be very irritating to the skin and is considered to be toxic or harmful. 

Some anionic surfactants are milder and more gentle than others because they are produced from a different range of fats such as soybean, palm, and coconut. Some examples are sodium lauryl sulfoacetate and disodium lauryl sulfoacetate. 

Amphoteric surfactants

These are surfactants that are derived from coconut and are very gentle and curly-girl approved. Some examples are: Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, Lauryl hydroxysultaine, Sodium cocoamphoacetate, Sodium lauroamphoacetate, and Coco caprylate.  Most companies lean heavily on using these when creating formulations that specifically don’t contain any sulfates. These surfactants don’t create any foam but are effective at removing oily buildup from sweat and dirt. 

Quaternary surfactants

Are usually found in co-wash products as these are the mildest surfactants.  Behentrimonium chloride, behentrimonium methosulfate, cetrimonium chloride are all examples of quaternary surfactants and they have very low cleansing abilities which is why they need to be combined with other types of surfactants. 

Non-ionic surfactants

There are two common non-ionic surfactants: Decyl glucoside and Lauryl glucoside. They have mild cleansing properties and are both curly-girl approved.  Products that contain these will not strip the hair from its natural oils.

At The Hair Routine, we believe in making informed decisions and learning what’s best for your hair. Complete this online test to see what your ideal hair care routine looks like, and keep on reading our journal to learn more about ingredients and their properties. 

Which surfactants are used in The Hair Routine products?

This is an inclusive list of all the surfactants used in The Hair Routine products:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate  – Organic salt that removes oils and bacteria without irritating the skin. It is safe to use for most skin types, including sensitive skin.

Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate – Organic salt and alcohol used to replace the harsh sulfates, it will cleanse the hair, but will not strip it from the natural oils. 

Lauryl Glucoside – Mild cleaning agent made from sugars and lipids.

Decyl Glucoside – Mild cleaning agent made from sugar.

Coco-Glucoside – Mild cleaning agent made from sugar and coconut oil.

Behentrimonium Chloride – Colza Oil conditions, detangles, fights static, softens, and strengthens hair.