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Surfactant basics

My very first blog post mentioned the word surfactant! So I wanted to continue on from that post and give a very basic explanation on what surfactants are. They absolutely fascinate me and as I have learned more about formulating personal care products, I have come to appreciate the role of surfactants in formulations. I hope that by sharing a little about them, it will help you understand more about their role and encourage you to gain more knowledge about them from the right places.

Surfactants are probably the biggest topic in personal care products so I won't go too much into the chemistry of it all and I'll try my best to explain in a way that is easy to understand.

What does surfactant mean? What is their role in personal care formulations?

Surfactants - a fancy word for surface active agents. They are in your shampoos, conditioners, body washes, you name it they are in all personal care products and there are hundred of different types. The sodium hydroxide used to create soap is a surfactant too. Surfactants work to enhance the performance intended of an ingredient in a formulation and their chemical structure means they are both water loving (hydrophilic) and oil loving (hydrophobic) which means they help oil and water mix. Each surfactant comes with a charge of positive or negative, or no charge and it is depending on what charge they are that determines how strongly they perform their role in a formulation. ie. cleansing, conditioning etc.

Surfactants come under two groups. The ones that cleanse and foam are anionic, amphoteric, non-ionic, so think of bubbles! When we use a product which has this type of surfactant in it, the bubbles are produced as the surfactant helps draw air into the liquid and that causes the foam! The other group of surfactants which are also called emulsifiers are ionic and non-ionic and these help create emulsions like lotions, creams, conditioners.

Each one of the surfactants that come under these groups have a positive, negative or no charge. This helps a cosmetic chemist know which surfactants to put together to create the best formulation. Some are stronger at cleansing and conditioning than others. This is why you will have surfactants in some personal care products that have a reputation for being harsh, or cause skin irritation. An example of a surfactant we use is sodium cocoyl isethionate. This is one of our key ingredients in our shampoo bars. It is an anionic surfactant derived from coconut oil and is a very gentle ingredient that is even used in baby products. There is so much more to go into with these but I promised to keep it simple! Hard to leave the jargon out but hopefully you are still with me!

Not all surfactants are bad for you or something to be afraid of and avoid. There are surfactants that are naturally derived and yes there are definitely surfactants that are more harsh and are synthetic. In recent seminars I have attended for cosmetic chemists, I was so happy to hear words like sustainability, natural and plant-based in the presentations from suppliers of ingredients, so it was an encouragement to know that these companies are listening to the needs of consumers for cleaner beauty and personal care products.

Here at Mia Belle, we want to reassure our customers that our ingredient choices will always fall in line with our brand ethos. From the hundreds of surfactants available to use in personal care products, we make sure we keep our skin and hair-care ingredient choices simple and easy to understand for our customer, good for you and for the environment around you. Plant-based, cruelty-free, naturally derived, organic elements and made right here in New Zealand.

For any questions around our products and ingredients and about the information in this blog email us at or use the contact us option on the website.

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