Surfactants: What Are They? What They Do? And Are They Really That Bad?

Today’s #IngredientSpotlight has brought us to a name that’s not only very commonly used across skincare and beyond but also is the cause of much upset. We’re talking about ‘Surfactants’. You’ve probably heard the term at least once whiles sailing through the sea of skincare. Today, we analyse what they are, how they work and if they’re really as bad as they’re made up to be.

What are surfactants?

Most chemicals can be categorised into two groups: hydrophiles (water-loving chemicals) and lipophiles (oil-loving chemicals). Hydrophiles are highly charged and readily dissolve with other highly charged things – for example, salt, water, whiskey. Lipophiles, on the other hand, carry too little charge or are neutral. They’re oily and don’t easily dissolve in things. As you already know, oil and water do not mix, no matter how much you shake or stir it.

Enter surfactants – the double agents of the chemical world. Surfactants are basically the union of hydrophile and a lipophile. Surfactants are made of a hydrophilic head that likes water, hates oil, and a lipophilic tail that likes oil, hates water.

What do surfactants do?

The unique composition of surfactants means they’re used in pretty much everything. But they’re most widely used in soaps and detergents due to their ability to dissolve oil in water.

Take, for instance, your cleanser. When you apply it on your face, the lipophilic tail attaches itself to the oily gunk in your pores, while the hydrophilic head dissolves it in water, giving you a thorough cleansing.

From mayonnaise to ice cream to even our lungs – surfactants are present everywhere!

Are surfactants bad for me?

Perhaps surfactants get a look suspicion because of their association with soap. Mass-produced soaps contain one or more strong alkali that can react with and dissolve fat, which will clean your skin but also damage the lipid barrier. But, your soap-free cleanser contains surfactants too, because getting rid of oil and greasy dirt is not possible without it! Basically, what we’re saying is – surfactants  based on the concentration present in your skincare products do not pose harm to your skin.

While there are chemicals and compounds present in many skincare products that do pose a cause for concern, rest assured that surfactants aren’t one of them.


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