They bubble and foam, dissolve, disperse and above all - clean! All of this has surfactants or surfactants in their repertoire, without which your detergent would not wash, the cleaner would not work and the shower would not wash. Their name comes from the English abbreviation of the words: SURFace, ACTive, AgeNT. These are surfactants, and although they rid us of impurities, their reputation is not without blemish.
It can be surprisingly cruel to our skin and maybe it bothers you, right now, without you knowing about it. Therefore, we peeked into the scientific studies and extracted everything we could about them. Wondering what surfactants are? Which species to watch out for and how to choose a product that does not turn the skin into a dried itchy affliction? Then read to the end.
They rid us of dirt and stains.
With a lot of dirt and stains, just water doesn't move. But you certainly know it for yourself. Ice cream stain on a t-shirt. Burnt baking tray. Skin after a day of wading through the city. Rinsing with water will help, but it will not clean the T-shirt, baking tray or skin as we would like. For physical reasons, the fats contained in the impurity simply cannot be mixed with the liquid. This is where surfactants come into play, which can also remove fat-soluble impurities. You will find them in everything it has to clean - in the composition of products for home polishing, washing, but also in shower gels or soaps.
Cleaning and washing bottles under and on your washbasin are usually mixtures of surfactants and other substances that have the ability to transfer impurities from solid to liquid media, and thus remove them from the surface. Manufacturers like to increase the effectiveness of surfactants with various activating additives that adjust the pH, reduce the hardness of water or the negative effect of some surfactants on the skin.1 However, they often add ingredients to products that we definitely do not support at Greenliferefill.ie. Examples are bleaching and brightening agents, some antimicrobial ingredients and old known synthetic perfumes, thickeners or fillers.
It is made from vegetable oils, but also from oil.
All surfactants can be produced synthetically, i.e. by chemical synthesis. Both from natural oils and fats and from petroleum raw materials. In general, synthetic surfactants can also be obtained from natural raw materials, but this is reflected in the production price, which then climbs up. Surfactants are like flies. Petroleum is most often divided according to how it can decompose into ions in the aquatic environment.2 This created four main classes, which are then broken down into other subcategories. But don't worry, we won't bother you here with any ground breaking names. Instead, we'll show you which surfactants treat us and our health. This will tell us a much more about them for our purposes.
Do you suffer from dry and irritated skin? Maybe surfactants are to blame.
The outer layer of our skin consists of dead and protein-rich cells. These are full of water-binding substances, which naturally keep the skin hydrated.3 Dead cells surround lipids (fats), keeping the skin supple. You can think of it as a wall with bricks of skin cells connected by lipid mortar. The wall prevents water from evaporating and at the same time protects the skin from attack from the outside.
However, when this barrier is broken, the skin dries, itches, peels and is irritated. Fortunately, something just doesn't throw her off and usually defends herself. But her big enemy is surfactants. As we have already said, surfactants are experts in removing impurities. However, they do not have a chance to recognize which substances make up the skin and which do not belong to it. It often happens that it removes important components from the skin, such as fats. This determines the structure of the outer layer of the skin and its ability to retain moisture is weakened. Likewise, surfactants like to deprive the skin and proteins and disrupt its natural microflora. The result is dry and dehydrated skin.
Residues can remain in the skin, irritate and disrupt it.
Do you say that after a shower or home cleaning, most surfactants are rinsed from the skin with water, so you are safe? Not quite. Some are keep on the skin and begin to erode the stability of the protective layer of the skin. They also cause the proteins present to swell. The more they swell, the greater the skin irritation. If you regularly suffer from an unpleasant feeling of tight skin after washing, it is quite possible that surfactants are to blame.
And the problem is getting worse. This is because surfactants are often also used as emulsifiers in non-rinsing products. You can also find them in bottles with various body lotions and creams. With prolonged contact, they can cause far greater problems and demolish living skin cells. We can also feel it with acute itching and burning. The negative effect on the skin persists until we remove the irritating surfactant. However, we usually do this again with a product containing a surfactant. In this way, we practically do not give our skin a chance to rest and regenerate the natural defensive film.
Lots of foam for little money. What about SLS and SLES fears?
SLS or Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
You may have heard the most about him. Excellent foaming, is very cheap and well biodegradable. No wonder the manufacturers liked him so much. They add it to soaps, shampoos, shower gels and toothpastes.
shampoo. It is one of the most irritating surfactants, yet we can find it in the composition of countless conventional means and many people regularly let it to their body during many daily activities.
Its long-term use causes dryness of the skin and hair. The skin may react by itching, burning or redness. People with sensitive or eczematous skin should not bother with a thought, let alone invite him home.
It is irritating from a concentration of 2% and more. However, it usually occurs in detergents in concentrations of 1 - 30%, in cosmetics sometimes up to 50% .4
If you find it in the product together with other types of surfactants, the harmful effect on the skin is likely to be less.
In natural cosmetics, it is also approved by the recognized EcoCert certification.
Have you heard of its carcinogenic effects? There are many rumours circulating on the Internet, but no studies have ever confirmed them.5
It is also made from palm oil. This can be obtained in a very unsustainable way and contribute to the deforestation of rainforests.6 We are preparing a special article on this important topic.
SLES or Sodium Lauretha Sulphate
People often confuse it with SLS. Even its long-term use causes drying of the skin and hair. In this respect, however, it is slightly more gentle than SLS.
SLES is also produced synthetically, from the so-called fatty alcohol obtained from palm or coconut oil.
It is more insidious than SLS in that it undergoes an ethoxylation process during production. In this case, the probable carcinogen 1,4-dioxane may be released. It then easily gets into the shower gel or shampoo together with SLES.7
Both types of surfactants, SLS and SLES, can irritate the skin, depending of course on the time of action and concentration. Acute toxicity and carcinogenicity in SLS and SLES have not been demonstrated in previous studies. However, the risk of contamination by carcinogenic impurities is associated with SLES.
Some people do not mind preparations with these surfactants, especially if it is a rinsing product used in small quantities. Therefore, the use of SLS and SLES is considered safe and can be used according to the valid legislation. And so it happens, most foamy products today contain one of them.
Potentially hazardous "impurities" in some surfactants.
Hazardous impurities are formed only during the production process and contaminate the final product. Therefore, they are not listed in the composition of the product, so the consumer does not have a chance to learn about them. Let's shine a light on them together.
They are formed under certain conditions naturally (especially in an acidic environment) from nitrites and proteins, resp. from secondary amines. They are also formed in the human stomach, hidden in food in meat products and contained in tobacco smoke. Animal experiments (🙁) found a strong carcinogenic effect and the ability to damage DNA in 90% of the nitrosamines studied.
As impurities they can be found, for example, in the following surfactants:
Due to the formation of nitrosamine, coconut acid diethanolamides (Cocamide DEA) are no longer used as surfactants.
SLS surfactant is sometimes associated with them. However, no nitrogen-containing chemicals are used during the SLS production process, so nitrosamines cannot be formed. However, according to some sources, they can only be formed by a subsequent "bottle" reaction with diethanolamides (DEA) or triethanolamines (TEA), where said nitrogen is present.
Under certain conditions, it can also be formed during the production of the surfactant CAPB (Cocamidopropyl betaine).
It is a chemical intermediate in industry in the production of certain substances. It is used in smaller quantities as a pesticide and insecticide, and is also contained in tobacco smoke. It is a known human carcinogen (can cause cancer and leukaemia), is mutagenic (alters genetic material, usually DNA), and is associated primarily with an increased risk of breast cancer in women.9
As an impurity it can be found, for example, in the following surfactants:
Sodium Lauretha Sulphate (SLES)
Laureth-7, Sodium Myreth Sulphate
exclamation mark 1,4-dioxane
It is formed during ethoxylation, in which ethylene oxide is added to other chemicals. Contamination of the product with 1,4-dioxane may occur during this process. It is classified as a "probable human carcinogen" (tumors of the liver, gallbladder, nasal cavity, lungs, skin and breast) and an animal carcinogen.10
As an impurity it can be found, for example, in the following surfactants:
Sodium Lauretha Sulphate (SLES), Sodium Myreth Sulphate.
Pay attention to the chemicals in the product's name that are named "-eth", "PEG," "polyethylene," "polyethylene glycol," "polyoxymethylene," or "oxyoxy."
According to some data, 97% of hair conditioners and 57% of baby soaps may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane during the manufacturing process. According to another study from 2008, as many as 46% of the tested personal care products were contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.
Brrrr… What about now?
In the production of "potentially contaminated" detergents, impurities can be removed. For manufacturers, however, it is an extra process that makes production more expensive. Therefore, producers of conventional cheap products usually do not solve it at all. Only invite products from responsible manufacturers to your homes or buy from retailers who properly inspect their suppliers and their production processes. We at Greenliferefill.ie avoid products containing risky surfactants. If you see natural products with the surfactant Cocamidopropyl betaine on our shelves, know that we always check their purity and the responsible approach of the manufacturer.
Choose from safer alternatives.
SCS or Sodium Coco sulphate.
SCS falls into the category of mildly irritating surfactants and may be used in its products by certified natural cosmetics.
Unlike the production of SLS from pure lauric acid, SCS is produced directly from coconut oil, which is a mixture of fatty acids, including said lauric acid. Thus, SCS results in a mixture of SLS, sodium caprylic sulphate, sodium oleic sulphate and sodium stearyl sulphate.
We calling them Sodium Coco sulphate.
Basically, it's just a finer variant of SLS.
Palm oil is not used for its production.
We can also observe drying of the skin and hair, but slightly milder than in SLS.
CAPB or Cocamidopropyl betaine.
It is made from coconut oil and is a low-irritating surfactant.
It is added to other surfactants to reduce the overall irritation of the product and also contains preparations for children.
During the manufacturing process, trace contamination with irritating amidoamine can occur, which often causes burning of the eyes and itching of the skin.
As mentioned above, toxic nitrosamines can also be formed under certain conditions. Manufacturers can remove these unwanted impurities technologically. Therefore, when using the composition with this surfactant, its purity must be checked.
The title that CAPB earned in 2004 is also interesting. It became the allergen of the year because of reactions to these impurities. 15 16
What matters here is whether the manufacturer solves the purity of the CAPB or not. At Greenliferefill.ie, we pay attention to the quality of our suppliers and manufacturers and do not want to offer you anything unverified or untrustworthy. If CAPB is in products of high quality and purity, we consider it a viable alternative to conventional more irritating surfactants.
It is a gentle surfactant made of coconut or palm oil, it foams beautifully and the skin tolerates it very well.
It is also suitable for sensitive and children's skin, it does not dry out and maintains its balance.
It is easily biodegradable in nature.
It is made from coconut oil and glucose, helps increase foaming, and is also used to reduce irritation that other surfactants can cause in the product (eg SLS or SLES).
It has one of the lowest levels of irritation of all commonly used surfactants, and is therefore also suitable for children's and sensitive skin.
For better foam properties (smoothness) is often used together with Cocamidopropyl betaine.
It is fully biodegradable.
It belongs to the "surfactants of the new generation", which are gentle on human health and the environment.
It is derived from sugar. It is very gentle and can also play the role of the main surfactant in the product, so its use is very wide.
These are surfactants contained in plants, for example in soap nuts or medical soap. As a rule, it foams strongly and is used exclusively by the Czech brand Haaro Naturo for its powder shampoos.
If saponins were released into nature in greater concentration, they could be harmful to aquatic creatures (similar to natural essential oils). However, as a surfactant in shampoo, which helps to break down microorganisms in a waste treatment plant, they do not accumulate in the environment and thus do no damage.
What about soaps?
They have excellent cleaning effects. It is produced by saponification from oils and other fats, or the fatty acids contained in them (myristic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid) by reaction with sodium or potassium hydroxide.
You can find them in the composition of the product, for example, as sodium cocoate - from coconut oil, sodium palmate - from palm oil, sodium olivate - from olive oil.
The disadvantage of soaps is the high pH, which can afflict sensitive skin in particular.
Soaps may also contain irritating surfactants, which you read about above. So check the composition of them too.
Soaps and skin pH.
The skin surface has a low pH, the so-called acidic protective coat. Many important reactions take place precisely and exclusively at low pH. High-pH cleansers and care products disrupt this skin's naturally acidic mantle, preventing it from functioning and regenerating properly. The skin swells and its elasticity decreases. Viruses, fungi and bacteria multiply, which can then cause acne.19 20
What with this?
If you have healthy skin and you get a soap once a day, you will not cause any disaster. Healthy skin can recover its protective coat, including a million friendly bacteria, relatively quickly.
However, it is different for sensitive or eczematous skin. With frequent use of high pH products, it loses its protection, natural functions and withers. Likewise, the use of soaps does not benefit intimate areas that are very sensitive to high pH. So watch out for products that look like "intimate soap". The addition of oak bark or chamomile extract to the soap does not make it suitable for intimate parties. From our acquired knowledge, we recommend that you avoid these soaps.
How do surfactants behave in nature?
At high concentrations, all surfactants, as well as any other substances, can be toxic in nature. However, the common concentrations used in detergents and cosmetics today are easily degradable. Wastewater treatment plants capture most of the product and the vast majority of nature can handle the rest. According to available sources, the biodegradability of most surfactant formulations is greater than 90% .
Beware of unsustainably obtained palm oil!
We should keep our eyes on the stems for the source raw materials for the production of surfactants. A large amount is produced from palm oil, most often SLS and SLES surfactants. Palm oil can come from different sources, with different consequences for nature and the animals that inhabit it.
Producers who use responsibly obtained palm oil or its alternatives usually "brag" about it. Therefore, the source and certification of raw materials are happy to state directly on the products.
Therefore, heat your eco-radars to an RSPO certificate, for example. It refers to palm oil from sustainable sources (usually outside Indonesia) that meets strict environmental criteria. Under the green palm leaf logo, you will find products that not only do not burden and endanger the local fauna and flora, but also support local producers and reduce poverty throughout the region.
The EcoCert - Natural Detergent certificate made with Organic or EcoCert - Na “works” similarly
Palm oil can be hidden in the composition of the product in the following ingredients:
Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate / Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Ethyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.
10 steps to cleanliness without risk:
Less is sometimes more. Before pulling out your entire arsenal of foam cleaners, consider whether plain water is enough.
Do not choose products based on whether they foam well. Foam does not equal cleanliness. Usually the opposite is true. The more the foam, the more aggressive surfactants it contains. You can read more about the frothy error of human bathrooms here.
It is better not to use products with SLS or SLES surfactants for a long time and only in rinsing products. With regular use, the skin may be irritated, excessively dry and its natural balance may be disturbed. If you find so-called sulphates in your favorite shampoo or dishwashing detergent, don't panic, you don't have to get rid of them right away. Use them in a reasonable dosage and next time get a product with finer surfactants.
Use surfactants based on natural substances, for example
SCS, CAPB, Lauryl Glucoside, Coco Glucoside or Decyl Glucoside. According to current knowledge, they are more gentle on the skin, nature, and their production. Such surfactants are most often obtained from coconut or palm oil (however, we at Greenliferefill.ie avoid this), but also, for example, from rapeseed oil, as specialists in Only Eco and Only Bio do. But also with natural surfactants, be careful and only buy responsibly manufactured products.
Prefer a product with certified natural cosmetics. This is because it does not tolerate synthetic (and usually the most harmful) surfactants, in addition, it guarantees the origin and sustainability of the raw materials from which the used natural surfactants are made. Look for several surfactant names in the composition, they are often more gentle than products with one type of surfactant. The surfactants are agglomerated in the formulations. If the clumps are very small, they easily penetrate the skin and cause irritation. However, surfactant mixtures aggregate into larger formations. They do not go through the skin so easily, and thus do not damage it so much
Watch for other ingredients in the product. Other substances can also cooperate with surfactants. Surfactants can damage the protective film of the skin, making it easier for other survivors to do damage to our body. Synthetic perfumes, preservatives or dyes are often hidden in conventional cosmetics.
Look for a pH ideally lower than 6.24 on products. Higher pH detergents usually cause more damage to the skin than lower pH ones.
In the composition, look for quality vegetable oils such as sunflower, fatty acids such as stearic acid and emollients such as glycerin and sorbitol. These ingredients hydrate the skin and help it supply what surfactants rob it of during cleansing.
Watch out for the palm oil. Some surfactants may be derived from palm oil. Therefore, make sure that the producer uses responsibly obtained palm oil that does not contribute to deforestation of rainforests. For example, look for an RSPO certificate.
You will find only the most gentle surfactants in our rinse-free cosmetics.
You will not find SLS or SLES in any of our cosmetics.
For manufacturers who use CAPB in their products, we verified its purity. At the same time, we carefully select all our brands and establish cooperation only with those we trust.
We also thoroughly check the overall composition of the products. We do not want to offer you anything that, according to the current level of our knowledge, we would not give ourselves without worries about the body and the body.