Science of a Surfactant

Have you ever seen a bead of water sitting on a surface? This is because water has a property called surface tension. This tension causes water to form a bead on the surface of things like glass or fabric. You can see surface tension at work by placing a drop of water onto a countertop. The drop will hold its shape and will not spread.

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In order to clean the dirt on our clothes, the water needs to be able to reach the surface. Water is able to get to the surface if surface tension is reduced. To do this, we use a group of chemicals called surface active agents, or surfactants.

Surfactants change how water behaves. When a surfactant is added, the surface tension is reduced. Now water can spread out and wet the surface (e.g., clothes, dishes, countertops) we are trying to clean.

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Now let’s look at what happens on the surface.

Every surfactant has two ends. One end wants to be in water and the other does not.

The water-fearing end is known as the hydrophobic end. Hydrophobic comes from two Greek roots, hydro- (meaning water) and -phobia (meaning fearing). Have you heard the phrase ‘oil and water don’t mix’? This is important here!

The water-fearing end of the surfactant is made up of hydrocarbon chains. A hydrocarbon is a molecule that is made of hydrogen and carbon. The chains love oil and grease and will try to stay away from water.

The water-loving end is known as the hydrophilic end. We learned hydro- is a Greek root meaning ‘water’. So, if -phobic means ‘fearing’, then -philic means loving. The water-loving end of the chemical is attracted to water.

How these two ends interact with soil and water is the secret to how a surfactant works.

Once the surfactant is added to water, the water-fearing ends try to stay away from the water. They do this by organizing into the shape of a sphere with the water-loving ends on the outside and the water-fearing ends protected on the inside.

This spherical shape of surfactants is called a micelle.

The micelle is important because it is what traps the soil. Remember, the inside of the micelle is hydrophobic and does not want to be near water. The soil is also hydrophobic, so it likes the environment the micelle creates.

The attraction of the soil to the inside of the surfactant micelle helps loosen the soil from its surface. Once the soil lifts off the surface, it becomes suspended in the water in the micelle. This suspension is also known as emulsification of one liquid into another. Happy inside the micelle, the soil will not settle back onto the surface.

Now that the soil is trapped in the micelle and the micelle is suspended in water, it is easy to wash the soil away.

Remember the outside of our micelle loves water. So as we rinse the micelle floats away and we are left with a clean surface!

How Surfactants Work

Close-up of dirty cloth.


The American Cleaning Institute ® (ACI) is an organization of companies in the U.S. Cleaning Products Industry, including producers of household, industrial, and institutional cleaning products, their ingredients and finished packaging; chemical producers; and chemical distributors.

Science is at the heart of ACI and its member companies. Established in 1926, ACI is dedicated to serving the growth and innovation of the U.S. cleaning products industry by advancing the health and quality of life of people and protecting our planet.

We value sound science and strive to advance public understanding of the safety and benefits of cleaning products. Our mission with this website is to demonstrate how science plays an essential role in our daily lives and from that vantage point inspire children to seek careers in STEM fields. The next generation of scientists and other STEM workforce are vital to the continued advancement of health and quality of life around the world.


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