It's the power-house ingredient in your favorite cleaners, but how does it work?

By Lauren Wellbank
November 18, 2020
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Credit: Getty / Kathrin Ziegler

If you're curious about how natural cleaning products work or why baking soda is such a powerful ingredient, you've come to the right place. We'll explain the science behind some of the most popular cleaning methods and tools, so you can you clean smarter—not harder. Follow along with Clean Science to see which technique we break down next.

Surfactants—short for "surface active agents"—are the foaming agents in your cleaning products that create the suds necessary to reduce (or eliminate) the surface tension between water and whatever it is you're attempting to clean. In short, they make cleaning up possible: They're arguably the single-most important ingredient in any household formula. Here, Melissa Lush, the co-founder of Force of Nature, explains exactly what they are, where you can find them, and how you should used them to get your home squeaky clean.

Surfactants are everywhere.

Surfactants are used in all types of products that contain detergents, like toothpaste, face washes, and, of course, household cleaners. "Some common examples you might read about are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)," explains Lush. "Some people stay away from all types of products using SLS because, depending on the product and concentration, it can be a skin irritant." For others, SLES are a concern due to the chemical process that produces it, called ethoxylation. According to Lush, this is where (depending on the manufacturing process) traces of a byproduct called 1,4-dioxane can be created. Because 1,4-dioxane has been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, some consumers try to avoid products—cleaning iterations, included—containing SLES all together.

They can be used in a myriad of ways.

The way you use each product will vary based on your cleaning goals—for example, you wouldn't use a laundry detergent the same way that you would a counter top cleaner—so Lush recommends reading the label's instructions to see what the manufacturer recommends. "Specific cleaning implements or application processes can vary by product," she says. "The role of the surfactant can be different in different products. They create foam in toothpaste and help other chemicals break down dirt in a laundry detergent."

Always follow directions.

Different manufacturers utilize differing concentrations of surfactants in their formulas, which means the same product type from two distinct brands might have different instructions. "Manufacturers can formulate their products with different surfactants and concentrations, so you should always read the instructions to make sure you're using it [correctly] to achieve the best results," Lush adds. And always carefully read the ingredient list before you mix products. If you aren't sure whether or not there are any components of the two compounds that may interact poorly together, err on the side of caution and avoid doubling up entirely.

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