Additives Soaps and SurfactantsWe all use soaps and detergents every day and are conditioned by the advertising world of smiling mums and youthful models, to keep our clothes clean with them, watch dirt disappear with them and wallow luxuriously in the bubbles they produce.

But bubbles can’t be trouble – right?

Wrong! Well, sort of. It’s more to do with the surfactant in the bubbles. OK, let me explain…

What are Surfactants?

Surfactants, short for ‘surface active agents’ and also referred to as ‘wetting agents’, are organic chemicals added to detergents to help reduce the surface tension of water and other liquids, thus having a softening effect and perhaps enabling bubbles to form more easily.

By doing this, they help to lift dirt and break down stain particles, disperse grease and so clean more effectively. In the case of clothes, they also help the wash product to penetrate the fabric more easily.

The most common domestic items where additive soaps and surfactants are used is in laundry and dishwasher detergent as well as soaps and bath products such as shampoos, bubble bath and facial washes – although their industrial use is also widespread.

What Are Surfactants Made From?

Surfactants are largely made from the waste bi-products of the petroleum industry. Some time ago, scientists managed to combine propylene and benzene, producing sulphuric acid and then neutralise it by adding sodium hydroxide. The result was a product rather like natural soap and suddenly marketers were able to develop a new commercial must-have consumer line of detergents.

Plant-based surfactants, however, although less common, are also available and these should always be the product of choice (although it would be worth considering if the plants used were treated with pesticides).

Although both types of surfactant are biodegradable, the plant-based ones are far more easily and quickly broken down whereas petroleum based products are difficult to get rid of and end up in sewage plants and ground water.

Hormone Disruptors

Alkyl phenol ethoxylates – or APEs for short, are a group of synthetic surfactants used in detergents and which include the following:

  • Ethoxylate
  • Nonoxynol
  • Nonylphenol
  • Octoxynol
  • Octylphenol

The most common surfactant is nonylphenol ehoxylate which along with octylphenol, are probable endocrine disrupters.

A hormone disrupting chemical mimics oestrogen and studies on animals have shown that even at low doses, such chemicals affect the reproductive system to the extent that fish have been found to have changed sex or become hermaphrodites. They are extremely harmful, therefore, to marine life and also difficult to remove from water. Worryingly, they have now also been found in food.

Nonionic nonylphenol and its ethoxylates – or NPEs as they are more commonly known – are the surfactants really causing concern at the moment as they will break down into a nonylphenol (or NP), which can stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.


Other groups of surfactants are the diethanolamines or DEAs (which include the related compounds monoehtalomine, and triethanolamine), and the ITALS (which includes sodium laureth sulphate) – both of which can be contaminated with or combine with other ingredients to form carcinogenic nitrosamines (already labelled as being some of the most damaging elements in cigarettes) and have been linked to cancers of the kidney and liver. They are also harmful to marine life.

DEA’s are commonly added to bubbly bath products and facial cleansers, with the danger that you could be exposing yourself daily to a carcinogenic.

If stored for a long time in a warm bathroom, these nitrates will increase in number and studies have shown them to be present in between 42 and 93% of all detergent based products.

Time to Change

Once you are aware of the damage industrial surfactants can do to you and the environment, consider changing to more environmentally friendly products. There are many alternatives out there and ranges to suit all needs.