How do cleaning products work? Surfactants
In the home

How do cleaning products work? Surfactants

We all love to see bubbles and foam working away at dirt and grime, but did you know they're called surfactants? Get the background on those bubbles here.

Did you know?

Surfactant is a blend of ‘surface active agent’.

If you came here wondering what the word surfactant means and exactly how it’s involved in your cleaning products, welcome! It’s all here: from the very definition of ‘surfactant’ to explaining how surfactants in detergent help you live a cleaner life, we had the same questions and spent some time gathering the most important information for you.

What is a Surfactant?

Simply put, a surfactant is a compound that allows two liquids to combine on a chemical level. This causes your cleaning products to actively foam and clean by breaking down the surface tension of water. The function of surfactant use lies in its foaming abilities, allowing the product to break down the oil, grease, and soil to remove it from countertops, clothing, and skin alike.

Surfactants are found in a wide range of products because these compounds are not only necessary ingredients, but also safe for people and the environment. Better yet, the chemical building blocks of surfactants are based on vegetable oil.

Where Are Surfactants Used?

Surfactants in detergent may be the most hardworking ingredient (or ingredients if there’s more than one in there!) when it comes to sorting out your wash: they are the surface-active agents among all the ingredients in your detergent. They are also used in many home and personal products that have foaming action. Because they have a low impact on the environment, it’s only natural that their cleaning abilities are applied to products we use on a daily basis.

Even though the variations of surfactants present in your detergent, cleaning spray and face wash are sustainable, there are other forms of this compound that do not pass biodegradability standards. Eco-conscious companies are constantly innovating to find substitutions, but you should always ensure you are using products including surfactants according to the label and with the right protection.

Ingredients Made Simple

Cleaning products that foam don’t just look like they’re working… foaming is proof that they are, and it’s the surfactants at work! With a little explanation and commonplace application, surfactants like SLS and SLES are ingredients you can recognise the next time you check the label on your favourite products.

For more information on the ingredients in products mentioned in this tip, visit What’s in Unilever Products here.

We recommend


Surfactants are commonly (and safely) used in household products because they foam, giving water the ability to dissolve oil, grease, and soil.