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What Is the Role of Surfactants in Soaps and Detergents?

Jan. 11, 2022

Cleaning products play a vital role in our daily lives. By safely and effectively removing soil, bacteria and other contaminants, they help us stay healthy and take care of our homes and property.

To understand what is needed to achieve effective cleaning, it is helpful to know the basics of soap and detergent chemistry.

Water, the liquid typically used for cleaning, has a property known as surface tension. This tension causes water to form beads on surfaces (glass, fabric), which slows down the wetting of the surface and inhibits the cleaning process. During the cleaning process, the surface tension must be reduced so that the water can spread and wet the surface. Chemicals that do this effectively are called surfactants or surface-active agents: they are said to make water "wetter".

Surfactants have other important functions in cleaning, such as loosening, emulsifying (dispersing in water) and keeping soil in suspension until it can be rinsed off. Surfactants can also provide alkalinity and can be used to remove acidic dirt.




Soaps are water-soluble sodium or potassium salts of fatty acids. Soaps are made from fats and oils or their fatty acids by chemical treatment with strong alkalis. Soap is an anionic surfactant. Other anionic and nonionic surfactants are the main components of today's detergents. Now let's take a closer look at the chemical properties of surfactants.

Fats and Oils

The fats and oils used in soap making come from animal or vegetable sources. Each type of fat or oil consists of a unique mixture of several different triglycerides.

In a triglyceride molecule, three fatty acid molecules are attached to a single glycerol molecule. There are many types of triglycerides; each type consists of its own specific combination of fatty acids.


A base is a soluble salt of an alkali metal such as sodium or potassium. Today, the term base describes a substance that is chemically a base (as opposed to an acid) and reacts with and neutralizes an acid. The bases commonly used in soap making are sodium hydroxide (NaOH), also known as caustic soda, and potassium hydroxide (KOH), also known as caustic potash.

How it is made

Oil and fat saponification is the most widely used soap making process. This method involves heating fats and oils and then reacting them with a liquid alkali to produce soap and water and glycerin.

Another major soapmaking process is the neutralization of fatty acids with alkali. The fats and oils are hydrolyzed under high pressure steam to produce crude fatty acids and glycerol. The fatty acids are then purified by distillation and neutralized with alkali to produce soap and water.

The carboxylate end of the soap molecule is attracted to water. It is called the hydrophilic (water-loving) end. The hydrocarbon chain is attracted to oil and grease and repelled by water. It is called the hydrophobic (water-repellent) end.


Detergent is an effective cleaning product because it contains one or more surfactants. Because of their chemical composition, the surfactants used in detergents can be designed to perform well under a variety of conditions. Such surfactants are less sensitive than soaps to hard minerals in water and most do not form films. Today, detergent surfactants are made from a variety of petrochemicals and oleochemicals.

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