Surfactants have a desired property: they dilute fats in water by dispersing them. Thus, they make it possible to modify the tension between two surfaces.

This property makes them essential in many industrial applications and also in everyday life. For example, mayonnaise is a stable emulsion of water and oil thanks to the surfactant contained in the egg yolk!

They therefore have an affinity for both oil and water. This unique, remarkable property enables them to solubilise two initially immiscible phases.

Dissolved in water, the surfactants gather at the interfaces, orienting themselves so that the hydrophilic part of their molecule is directed towards the water and the hydrophobic part towards the oily phase or the air.

When this interface is the free surface of the solution in contact with the air, a surface film of oriented molecules is formed, which modifies its properties by reducing the surface tension, hence the name sometimes given to these products: “surface active agents”.


When the interface is the contact surface between two liquids, such as oil and water, surfactant molecules gather at this interface. Since the hydrophilic part of their molecule is in water and the hydrophobic part in oil, these molecules create a bond between the two liquids, which causes a decrease in surface tension and facilitates the formation of emulsions.


When the surfactant concentration of the aqueous solution is sufficient to saturate the interfaces, the excess molecules gather within the solution in small aggregates of oriented molecules, with the hydrophilic parts directed to the water and the hydrophobic parts directed towards the inside; these agglomerates are called micelles.


Focus on the structure of surfactants

Some products have a natural affinity for aqueous phases: sugars, glycerol, glycols, etc. These products are referred to as hydrophilic.

Other products have a natural affinity for oily phases: vegetable oils, paraffins, etc. These are referred to as hydrophobic or lipophilic.

Products whose molecule includes a hydrophilic part and a hydrophobic part are amphiphiles. This is the case for surfactants represented by this symbol:

shéma tensioactif

Four types of surfactants for
an endless scope of innovation!

Surfactants can be of vegetable or synthetic origin.
There are four types of surfactants according to the nature of the hydrophilic part:

Anionic surfactants – Fatty alcohol sulphates
– Ethoxylated fatty alcohol sulphates (ether sulphates)
– Sulphonate alkylarenes, etc.
Non-ionic surfactants – Ethoxylates and propoxylates
– Alkanolamides, alkylpolyglucosides
– Sorbitan esters, glycerol esters, etc.
Cationic surfactants – Acyclic and heterocyclic fatty amine and polyamine salts
– Quaternary ammonium salts
– Amine oxides, etc.
Amphoteric surfactants – Betaines, etc.
The characteristics of surfactants give them special properties:

Detergent properties These properties facilitate the removal of dirt and grime and their dispersion in water.
Dispersant properties These properties increase the suspension stability of small solid particles in a liquid.
Emulsifying properties These properties facilitate the formation of an emulsion, in other words, a dispersion in the form of fine droplets from one liquid into another (for example, oil in water), and increase stability.
Wetting properties These properties promote the spreading of a liquid on a solid surface or increase its penetration rate into porous bodies (cotton, leather, paper, etc.).
Foaming or anti-foaming properties These properties cause or prevent foaming.
Solubilising properties These properties increase the apparent water solubility of poorly soluble substances.

These various properties make surfactants essential elements in a wide range of applications:


Detergent and cleaning products industry


Cosmetics industry


Textile industry


Agro-food industry


Leather industry


Petroleum industry


Mining industry


Plastics industry


Pharmaceutical industry


Paints, pigments and varnishes industry


Fertiliser and plant protection industry


Livestock feed industry


Metallurgical and mechanical industry


Construction and public works industry

The surfactants sector is particularly innovative and creative. New molecules are designed with mechanisms and designs of various forms. Unprecedented assemblies provide nuances according to uses. For example, a foaming effect will be expected for hand soap but will be contra-indicated in a dishwasher, etc. All innovations are designed and implemented with the utmost attention to consumer safety.

All you need to know about cosmetic ingredients

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