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What Are Natural Surfactants & How Do They Work?

Geraldine Orentas


Sometimes, deciphering what all the ingredients in our skincare products can do for our skin can be a bit daunting. While we all love a good lather and the luxurious feeling of foam in our cleansers, washes and shampoos, we don’t necessarily want synthetic surfactants in our products. 

A good cleanser will lift away all the dirt and impurities lying on your skin without stripping it of its natural oils. Surfactants are hands down the best ingredient to make that happen. But some chemical surfactants can be a bit too drying and don’t really add any nourishment or protection to your skin, leaving it rather exposed and vulnerable to external elements. 

Luckily, natural surfactants are a great alternative to provide the same effects sans the dryness. To learn more about how they work, keep reading this short guide. 

What Are Surfactants?

A surfactant is the short form of surface active agents. They’re a primary component of most cleaning detergents. They alter the surface tension between two fluids to help trap dirt and remove it from the surface. 

Soaps, conditioners, shampoos, shower gels, and body washes contain surfactants that help cleanse your skin, scalp, or hair. When they touch water, surfactants cause a reaction that produces that foamy texture we’re all too familiar with.  

Are They Safe?

Most surfactants are generally safe. However, it's possible that they can strip the skin of its natural oils and disrupt its microbiome. Often, when we deprive the scalp or skin of its natural oils, irritation and inflammation can follow. 

There’s also a group of people that worry about synthetic surfactants and their effect on the environment. And synthetic surfactants are typically manufactured using petrochemical materials, which will be discussed further below. 

What Are Natural Surfactants?

Natural surfactants or biosurfactants are promising alternatives to popular petroleum-based surfactants. They tend to have a more complex chemical structure that can be far superior to synthetic options. Besides having the same detergency, foaming and emulsifying properties, they also have hydrating properties that can benefit the skin. Additionally, many natural surfactants share antimicrobial properties that make them excellent natural preservatives for cosmetics. 

Chemical Surfactants vs. Natural Surfactants

Chemical surfactants are designed and modified to be mixed with other chemicals to serve a specific purpose. Since these types of surfactants are often byproducts of petrochemicals, it’s understandable consumers don’t want to be close to these chemicals, especially with daily use products like shampoo and facial cleansers.

On the flip side, natural surfactants or biosurfactants occur naturally in our environment. Its essential to recognize what “natural” can mean in cosmetics:

  • True Natural: These are ingredients isolated from a plant and chemically purified, but that remains otherwise unchanged. There aren’t many natural surfactants that are adequate for use as a cleansing surfactant. 
  • Bio-identical or Acceptable Natural: These are chemically designed in a lab but behave identically to their natural counterparts.
  • Chemical Surfactants to Avoid

    Some synthetic surfactants and sulfates can be a bit too stripping on your skin. While they’re excellent at their job, they might be too good at it, thus eliminating all bacteria - good and bad - from your skin’s ecosystem and potentially causing a microbiome imbalance. 

    Typical chemical surfactants in cosmetics to stay clear from include:

    • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
    • Sodium laureth ether sulfate (SLES)
    • Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)
    • Ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS)
    • Sodium stearate
    • Stearic acid
    • Cetyl alcohol
    • Stearyl alcohol
    • Cocamidopropylamine 
    • Polysorbate ester

    Natural Surfactant Alternatives

    Whether true natural or acceptable natural, these types of surfactants are the way to go and can behave as well (if not better) than others. These surfactants have oil-busting or emulsifying effects without compromising your skin’s health. Mother Dirt’s skin and hair care products are formulated with natural surfactants. They clean your skin and hair without stripping it of its essential oils or disrupting the microbiome. 

    Typical natural surfactants approved within the COSMOS-standard include:

    Other 100% natural surfactants include yucca extract, soapwort, soapbark, soapnut, and more. Some cosmetics will use saponified coconut oil and potassium cocoate, which also originates from coconut oil. These plant-based solutions can offer a less intense lather but will still clean your hair or skin effectively. 

      The Role of Surfactants in Skincare

      Almost all cosmetic, beauty and cleansing products contain surfactants. Because they have so many chemical properties and can interact well with other ingredients to create desired effects, they’re also flexible to use in different beauty products. 

      Some of the most common applications and roles of surfactants include:

    • Cleansers: of course, surfactants are excellent cleansers that help trap dirt and oils, loosening them from your skin’s surface so that they can be easily washed away. Unfortunately, synthetic surfactants can be too drying, lifting away the essential oils your skin needs to preserve moisture. 
    • Emulsifiers: some surfactants can be emulsifiers to give you conditioners, lotions and creams. Here’s where natural surfactants thrive over chemical ones since they do provide long-lasting hydration that doesn’t irritate or disrupt your skin's health. 
    • Foaming: a group of surfactants can help create lather or bubbles, which is why they appear in shaving creams and foaming cleansers
    • The Takeaway

      Try to use products that have natural surfactants in order to keep your skin as healthy as possible.

      At Mother Dirt, we use natural surfactants like coco glucoside to cleanse the skin and hair without stripping it. We believe that promoting a healthy skin microbiome is the secret to clear, radiant and healthier-looking skin. We promise to formulate safe products that are paraben-, sulfate- and alcohol-free to preserve and nourish the skin’s microbiome and ecosystem. 

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