The Science of Surfactants

Your Cleaning Products and The Environment


No cleaning product is complete without some form of a surfactant. For the everyday consumer, this is just gibberish, but getting to know the science behind these cleaning agents helps you understand what’s really going on when you’re scrubbing the surface. Before we dive in, a definition which may help you better grasp the concept behind surfactants: “a substance, such as a detergent, that can reduce the surface tension of a liquid and thus allow it to foam or penetrate solids.” So what does this mean to the everyday person?

In layman’s terms, a surfactant breaks down solids by loosening the bond between a liquid and a solid. In relation to your car, think of this as the foam that is cutting through stuck on dirt, making your cleaning job easier than if you just used water. Another easy way to think about this is “cleaning power.” Naturally, without scrubbing or brushing, a cleanser should break up grease, grime, and dirt; this is due to the surfactant within the formula.

Surfactants come in various different forms, referred to as classifications, and can be easily distinguished using a microscope. For us normal folk, that doesn’t mean anything, but for the manufacturers of these products it means everything. To give you an idea of how brain-scratching this really is, here are just a few classifications that are based on the polarity of their “head” (hydrophil):

  • Nonionic -  fatty alcohols, glucoside (sugar based), glycerol,
  • Anionic - based on permanent anions (sulfate, sulfonate, phosphate) or pH-dependent anions (carboxylate)
  • Cationic - pH-dependent primary, secondary or tertiary amines: primary amines become positively charged at pH < 10, secondary amines become charged at pH < 4
  • Amphoteric – can act as both an acid and a base (amino acids, proteins, hydro carbonates, and even water)

Other than taking you back to your college science class, this information really doesn’t affect the way you shop or use these products. A company produces cleaners using surfactants that work for whatever the product is meant to tackle. That said, manufacturers do have a choice to be environmentally conscious, and this begins with their choice in surfactants. Each classification of surfactant has positives and negatives within them, as this is a very deep subject when it comes to chemistry and biological makeup.

To make it simple, there are obvious choices between harsh surfactants that can intentionally strip any polymers that may be present (strong acids or alkalines typically used to mobilize oil) and organically based surfactants (made from sugar, corn, alcohol, etc.) that provide a much more balanced attack when it comes to breaking up solids such as dirt and grime. To shop consciously, be sure you’re buying products that are naturally derived, responsibly manufactured, and biodegradable. Organically manufactured products help to preserve the surface you’re cleaning and they aren’t going to harm the environment.

Often you can tell which is a more eco-friendly product by its pH level, which is greatly affected by the surfactant of choice. The pH range is from 0 to 14, 0 being highly acidic and 14 being highly alkaline (base). 7, being neutral, is a much more friendly pH level and when cleaning the car or around your home, this is what you want to leave behind; a pH neutral surface. While strong acids or powerful bases do a great job cleaning, they actually are over cleaning and for at-home use it’s simply unnecessary and harmful.

​At Dr. Beasley’s, we make a conscious effort to manufacture and formulate our detailing and car care products with organically derived and renewable ingredients as much as possible. The vast majority of our products include surfactants which we have researched to be products of renewable resources such as corn and sugar. Cleaning with our products not only helps to preserve your car’s various surfaces (inside and out), but also helps to support a healthy and sustainable environment. When it comes to pH, our Clean, Prep, Protect system ensures that a freshly cleaned surface is neutralized before protection, helping the clean last longer and produce superior protection results.