The Role of Surfactants in Skincare

For those of you suffering from oily/combination complexions, skincare can feel like an endless search for sebum-busting ingredients that will leave your skin perfectly mattified and shine-free,

Can you imagine a world without jumping in the shower adding some water and instantly cleansing your skin, this, for the most part, is what could happen if surfactants didn’t exist.

Yet a good cleanser is important when it comes to balancing oil and that daily shine, removing the build-up of debris that causes clogged pores. The issue is, however, many of the conventional cleansers out there rely on surfactant chemistry and their structural properties, for shaping the user experience and delivery of the product they are crucial to many of these formulations.

So let’s dive in and look at what gives us all those lovely suds, and their role on the skin, which is to break down oils and fats.

It all starts on the surface

Chemical surfactants are designed to reduce the surface tension — a physical phenomenon that occurs between an oil molecule and a water molecule.

The molecules are both ‘hydrophilic’ this means they can dissolve in water and they are ‘lipophilic’ which means they can dissolve in oil. With these properties, they can effectively produce the ‘foaming’ and ‘lathering’ effect in cleansers and a variety of other personal care products.

Surfactant properties

Surfactants can be broken down into three main types:

  • Lipophilic: Oil Loving
  • Hydrophilic: Water loving
  • Hydrophobic: Water hating, they repel water

The most common Surfactants that you find in your personal care products are sulfated detergents

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Ammonium laureth sulfate
  • Disodium lauryl sulfosuccinate
  • Cocamphocarboxyglycinate
  • Cocoamidopropyl betaine
  • Alpha-Olefin sulfonate

All of these surfactants are widely used in your shampoos, bubble baths, shower gels, and cleansing lotions, some of which I choose to avoid in my formulas, and here’s why.

Types of surfactants

Anionic Surfactant

These are very strong and are by far the most common type of surfactant or cleaning chemical.

They are used in just about everything that you come into contact with and are specifically designed to clean grease and dirt from any surface, including our skin and hair.

Cationic Surfactant

These are commonly used in fabric conditioners and hair products.

Amphoteric Surfactant

These ingredients are really adaptable to both alkaline and acid, they help to adjust the pH of the water used in the solution because they are so neutral, they are really mild and gentle on the skin.

These are the surfactants of choice for me because they are gentle enough to use even on babies’ skin.

Nonionic Surfactant

These surfactants are often used in heavy thick creams, such as hand or body creams.

Fatty acid alcohols such as Cetearyl alcohol or stearyl alcohol, are the simplest non-ionic surfactants, these are useful where lots of lather is not really necessary, such as for use in dishwashers and front loading washing machines.

Follow the link, to learn more about the role surfactants have in bath and body formulas.

The naked truth

Specifically, when it comes to the surfactants used in your skincare that is designed to be applied to the face, there are a few ingredients with ultra harmful side effects, which I discuss in this article.


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