surfactants in hair products

What Are Surfactants And Why Are They Used In Hair Care?

Today, I've explained what are surfactants in hair care products. I've also given details about cationic and anionic surfactants in shampoos.

Have you ever wondered about the ingredients in your shampoos? Are they safe for your hair? One such ingredient is Surfactants. It has been the talk of the town.

People believe that surfactants damage the hair and make them harsh. Little do they know that there are various kinds of surfactants that also condition the hair. 

Are you wondering about “what are surfactants?”. If yes, then you are at the right place. 

In this article, I will explore the different kinds and how it is beneficial for your hair. 

Related: Ingredients To Avoid In Hair Care

What are surfactants? 

Surfactants are molecular compounds found in shampoo and conditioners. They act as a cleansing agent. They lather in your hair and cleanse the scalp by removing dirt, dead cells and residues, and oils. 

The primary function of the compound is to disrupt the surface tension. It cleanses and breaks down the oil and dirt because it has the ability to dissolve the bonds that holds them together.

Also, it also causes the lather in the shampoo which purifies and cleans your hair. They are hydrophilic as well as lipophilic.

This allows them to mix with water to create lather and lift up the oil and other impurities from your hair. 

You’d be surprised to know that there are different kinds of surfactants. It is necessary for you to pick your shampoo carefully. Let us know more about the different types which will help you choose the right shampoo and conditioner. 

Types of surfactants 

There are four types of surfactants based on composition and polarity. Although they serve the same function i.e. lower the surface tension but have different purposes.

Some of them can be used in shampoos and others are used in fragrances, cleaning products, etc. Let us dive into different types and understand their purpose. 

Nonionic surfactants 

Such surfactants are neutral in nature. Their hydrophilic end has no charge which is why it can be used as a wetting agent. 

It is very good at emulsifying oils and removing organic soils. Hence you can find these in dish soaps, cleaners, polish, fragrances, and others. 

cationic and anionic surfactants in shampoo

Cationic surfactants 

It is quite the opposite of nonionic surfactants. The hydrophilic end of cationic is positively charged which makes them very useful in an anti-static product. 

You can find it in hair conditioners and fabric softeners. It also has anti-microbial properties which is why you can find it in disinfectants. When used alone, it nourishes skin, hair, and body. 

Anionic surfactants

They carry a negatively charged head group and are used as a wetting agent. They are strong cleansing agents and have the ability to cause irritation. 

It is one of the most intense surfactants out there. They are found in shampoos, as well as body soaps, toothpaste, detergents, and more. These surfactants are most effective in removing oily residue. 

Amphoteric surfactants

These types of surfactants have both positive and negative charge. Basically, it has the properties of both anionic and cationic surfactants. They are often used in latex and paints. 

Why are surfactants used in hair care?

Now that you know the types of surfactants, let us understand why they are used in hair care. 

Not only in shampoos but also conditioners include the surfactants. The real question is - Is it safe? Does it benefit the hair? I have the answer for that. 


which type of surfactant used in shampoo

One of the basic hair products is shampoo. It has now become one of the necessary products that you need to have. 

Just how your body needs food, supplements and proper routine to stay healthy, your hair needs it too. To keep your hair healthy, you need to take utmost care of your scalp. 

Did you know that your scalp is prone to dust, bacteria and oil accumulation? Well, your hair is exposed to sun, pollution and more. Apart from this, your scalp produces natural oils to keep the hair healthy. 

While all of this exists, it is important to keep your scalp and hair clean. All of this cannot be cleaned with just water alone. You need proper shampoo that can break down the dirt, oil and clean your hair.

Surfactants in shampoo cause the formation of micelles which wash away oil and dirt from hair with water. 

It contains ionic or amphoteric surfactants. The former creates lather whereas the latter decreases the irritation caused by other shampoo ingredients. 

The no-tear, mild shampoos on the market are entirely made of amphoteric surfactants. 

To avoid scalp irritation and harsh detergency, non-ionic surfactants are generally not used. In rare cases of thickeners, such surfactants are used in small quantities. 

All in all, surfactants in shampoo clean your hair and scalp. They remove the dirt, dead skin cells, excess oil, hair product buildup and more. 

You need to remember that Sulfates are harmful for your hair. They can cause breakage and affect the health of your hair. Whereas surfactants are important.

Are surfactants bad for your hair? 

Now that you know why surfactants are used in hair care, let us understand if it is good or bad for your hair. 

You might not know the answer that surfactants are both good and bad. It depends on your hair type and for that you will have to experiment. 

Strong surfactants like sulfates have harmful effects on your hair. They can damage your hair and also cause irritation. 

They have the ability to remove oil and dry out your scalp. Dryness in the scalp opens the gates to dandruff and will lead to irritation. 

To avoid all of this, companies have started adding milder surfactants. In some of the shampoos, co-surfactants are present like fatty alcohols. 

This balances the formula and the drying effects of the surfactants. Some of the shampoos consist of moisturizing oils that prevent the damage of the hair.

Other types of surfactants 

Now that you are aware of how surfactants work in shampoos and conditioners, let us explore other types as well. The surfactants serve different purposes as well. Let us have a look at it. 

  • Detergents: Did you know that detergents and soaps also contain surfactants? Well, now you know. They have the ability to draw oil towards them. So, once you rinse off your skin, the oil, along with dirt, gets rinsed off with the water. They also have the properties of lathering. 
  • Emulsifiers: The dictionary definition of emulsion is - “mixture of two or more liquids that are normally immiscible owing to liquid-liquid phase separation." This is where surfactants like moisturising creams and lotions come into play. When you apply them to your skin, they deliver “oil” to the skin surface. 
  • Solubilizers: Another property of surfactants is their ability to act as solubilizers. This is when a small amount of oil is to be blended with a large amount of water.
  • Given these are two different liquids, it becomes difficult to blend both of them. Hence, a surfactant is used. For example - colognes, skin toners and perfumes include surfactants.
surfactant based shampoo side effects

Sulfate free surfactants

One of the most common surfactants (anionic) contains sulfate. You need to be careful while picking up your shampoo and conditioner. It is said that sulfates cause your hair to frizz.

Although it moisturizes, it has the ability to strip your hair of the natural oils. It is advised to use sulfate free products for better results.

If you have dry, frizzy hair or sensitive skin, I advise you to opt for sulfate free shampoos.

It maintains the natural oils and will leave your hair smooth, moisturized and silky. Just because sulfate free is mild, doesn’t mean it is weak.

Just in case, if you have dandruff, you can opt for sulfate shampoos. It will cleanse your scalp, remove oil residues that might worsen the case. 

One of the products that you need to have on your shelf is OGX Extra Strength Refreshing Scalp + Teatree Mint Shampoo. It contains peppermint, tea tree oil, and witch hazel and is sulfate free.

It will leave your hair smooth, shiny, healthy and frizz-free. It is light-weight and cleanses the scalp without removing the natural oil. It will also work on curly hair, so what are you waiting for?

Summary on Surfactants and Why They Use It In Hair Care Products

Other than shampoo surfactants, there are conditioning surfactants that get deposited on your hair. 

They are not easily washed off and have the properties of conditioning your hair. They keep it smooth and shiny.

Cationic surfactants that are positively charged are used in conditioning products. It helps to remove the negative charge in hair and ensure smoothening of the cuticle.

It is important for you to know what your shampoo contains. This will help you understand if it is suitable for you or not.

Moreover, you should opt for products that will nurture your hair as well as your skin.

Make sure to read the label before purchasing any hair care product! 

Also Read:

Under-Rated Natural Ingredients For Hair

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