Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension (or interfacial tension) between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid. Surfactants may act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, and dispersants.
Surfactants in Window Cleaning Solutions
Window cleaning solutions began using surfactants after World War II. The most common window cleaner in the country, Windex, reformed its solution to incorporate surfactants to make their product less expensive. Sodium dodecyl sulfate is an anionic surfactant used in most cleaning solutions. Derived from inexpensive coconut and palm oils, sodium dodecyl sulfate is a common component of many domestic cleaning products.
Surfactants in Our Environment
In our environment, surfactants are routinely deposited in numerous ways on land and into water systems, whether as part of an intended process or as industrial and household waste. Some of them are known to be toxic to animals, ecosystems, and humans, and can increase the diffusion of other environmental contaminants. As a result, there are proposed or voluntary restrictions on the use of some surfactants. For example, PFOS is a persistent organic pollutant as judged by the Stockholm Convention. Additionally, PFOA has been subject to a voluntary agreement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and eight chemical companies to reduce and eliminate emissions of the chemical and its precursors.
Harmful Surfactants: Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonates and Alkyl Phenol Ethoxylates
The two major surfactants used in the year 2000 were linear alkylbenzene sulfonates (LAS) and the alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APE). They break down in the aerobic conditions found in sewage treatment plants and in soil to the metabolite nonylphenol, which is thought to be an endocrine disruptor.
While surfactants aren’t carcinogenic, they are skin and eye irritants and people should avoid contact.
Learn more about surfactants in our industry glossary.
“Sodium Dodecyl Sulfate.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.
“Surfactants.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.
“Windex.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.