Trying to avoid SLS and other harsh surfactants in your cosmetics? There are many mild, natural surfactants available. Learn about the different types of natural surfactants, with a list of my favorites.
What is a surfactant?
There are many types of surfactants and they are used for many different purposes, but they all share one quality: they help increase the wetting properties of a liquid. Surfactants can be found almost everywhere. You can find them in everything from detergents and shampoos to toothpaste and even conditioners.
(A surfactant,) also called surface-active agent, (is a ) substance such as a detergent that, when added to a liquid, reduces its surface tension, thereby increasing its spreading and wetting properties. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Some surfactants are emulsifiers, others are foaming agents (and some may actually do the opposite of those functions). Some act as detergents, while others act as insecticides or fungicides. Some help with solubilizing (small amounts of oils into water, for example) and others help increase viscosity.
How do surfactants work?
Surfactants affect the surface tension of liquids to increase wetting.
Why would you want to increase wetting?
Normally, when you spray water on a surface like a window, rather than spread evenly over the surface, the water will bead up. That’s because of the surface tension of the water. The molecules of the water come together in a stable configuration and are attracted to each other. When you are trying to clean that window, though, that beading isn’t helping you. You want the water to spread evenly over the surface to better clean it. You also want something that can grab onto the grease and dirt on whatever surface you are trying to clean.
Micelles in surfactants
Surfactants affect the surface tension that is making the water bead up rather than spread out. They have a water-loving head and an fat (oil) loving tail. They come together in structures called micelles.
I already explained a bit about how the micelles in surfactants work in my micellar water recipe, but for those who haven’t read that post, let me give you a quick, simplified explanation. The water-loving heads of the micelles bond with the water while the oil-loving tails on the inside of the micelles bond with the grease and grime. That pulls the grease and grime into the center of the micelles out of contact with the water, making them easier to rinse away.
You’ll also find that hot water helps clean better because the hot water helps melt the fats which makes it easier for them to be brought into the micelles.
Types of surfactants
There are four main types of surfactants, each behaving somewhat differently, and some with completely different functions. The detergent-like surfactants tend to be the anionic, non-ionic and amphoteric surfactants. Some cationic surfactants are used as emulsifiers and are great for hair conditioners. (I use BTMS, a cationic surfactant, in my hair conditioner recipe.)
These are classified based on the charge of the polar head of the surfactant which can have a positive charge (cationic), a negative charge (anionic), or no charge (non-inonic). Amphoteric surfactants have both a cationic and anionic part attached to the same molecule.
- Anionic – Anionic surfactants are the most commonly used surfactants because they tend to provide the best cleaning power and the most foam. You’ve probably heard people talking about one of the most commonly used anionic surfactants, SLS (Sodium lauryl sulfate or Sodium Laureth Sulfate). It can be found in everything from shampoos and shower gels to even toothpaste. I’ve also shown you how to make soap (many types by now!), another anionic surfactant.
Anionic surfactants can be harsher on the skin, which is why they are often combined with other types of milder surfactants.
- Nonionic – The second most commonly used surfactants are nonionic surfactants. They don’t ionize in water or aqueous solutions. Nonionic surfactants are gentler when cleaning. Because they don’t carry a charge, they are the most compatible with other types of surfactants. Recently, sugar-based nonionic surfactants have been developed to offer a safer, non-toxic alternative to some of the more harsh surfactants on the market up until now.
- Cationic – Cationic surfactants don’t generally give foaming like the other types of surfactants. They are often used in hair care products (mainly conditioners and anti-static products because they don’t provide the foaming for use in shampoos) because their positive charge is attracted to the negative charge in hair. This makes it difficult to completely wash them from your hair, so some stays behind to help reduce friction between hairs which, in turn, reduces the amount of electrostatic charge in hair. This helps make hair more manageable and helps prevent damage.
Cationic surfactants aren’t usually compatible with anionic surfactants!
- Amphoteric – Amphoteric surfactants can carry either a positive or negative charge depending on the pH of your product. Despite that, they are still compatible with all of the other types of surfactants. These tend to be very mild surfactants which is why they are usually combined with other surfactants. While amphoteric surfactants may not give a lot of foam on their own, they can help boost the foam of the other surfactants. Amphoteric surfactants are often combined with anionic surfactants to reduce their harshness and help stabilize their foam.
Natural surfactants list:
Natural surfactants can be derived from many types of plants. Common sources are coconut or palm, but they can also be derived from other types of fruits and vegetables.
There are many natural surfactants on the market today, and with increased consumer demand, I imagine that many more will be available in time. I have tried many of them, but today I’ll focus on some of my favorites. I like these surfactants because they are gentle, they tend to be easier to find, and they work well together. You can use these in everything from gentle shampoos to shower gels, facial cleanser, and baby washes.
Choosing your surfactants
Keep in mind that many of these surfactants are not palm free, so you’ll want to source them from places that allow for sustainable methods of obtaining their materials. I buy surfactants that have been certified sustainable by RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) standards.
Another thing to keep in mind is that these surfactants can differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. The names are polymeric and aren’t referring to an exact structure. Some places will use different plants as the origin of elaborating each surfactant, and the way each surfactant cleans, solubilizes, etc. can vary depending on where you buy it from. I’ll be describing these surfactants based on my suppliers, but you’ll want to check on the specifications of the surfactant you are buying if it’s important to you to know what plants have been used to derive them, the pH, the concentration, etc. Use this list as a general guideline!
Along those lines, while mine are listed as ECOCERT approved, that may also be dependent upon the manufacturer of each surfactant.
I’ll be updating this list and adding more surfactants as I use them and learn more about them. For now, though, this should give you a good starting point to understanding what we are going to be working with.
Coco Glucoside is a non-ionic surfactant that is obtained from coconut oil and fruit sugars, but it can also be obtained from either potato or corn. It is a very gentle, foamy cleanser and is completely biodegradable. You can use it in products that you want to have an ECOCERT certification. It has an alkaline pH (around 12) which makes it self-preserving as is, but you will probably have to adjust the final pH of products using it to pull it into a range more suitable for your skin or hair (and you’ll need to add a preservative).
Decyl Glucoside is very similar to coco glucoside (non-ionic and ECOCERT compatible), but it has a shorter chain length. It creates less foam (its foam is less stable) than coco glucoside but it does add more viscosity to a product. It is derived from coconut oil and glucose and is completely biodegradable. It can be used in all sorts of shampoos, gels, baby products, etc.
Lauryl Glucoside is very similar to the other 2 glucosides I’ve mentioned. It has a longer chain length and more viscosity. It takes longer to foam than the other two, but it also has the most stable foam. While it is also a mild cleanser, it isn’t as mild as the other 2 alkyl polyglucosides.
Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate
Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate is a gentle anionic surfactant that can be used in natural products (ECOCERT). It is a great alternative to SLS for a milder, more natural shampoo (or body wash, etc.). It has larger molecules than some of the other surfactants (like SLS) making it unable to penetrate and irritate the skin in the same way. It cleans and provides foam in products made for people with sensitive skin.
Coco betaine is a coconut based amphoteric surfactant. It’s mild and can help boost foam and increase the viscosity of products made with it. It’s very mild and provides for gentle cleansing. It’s completely biodegradable and has a pH around 6-8. It is also ECOCERT compatible so it can be used in the elaboration of “natural” and “organic” type products.
Sodium Coco Sulfate
Sodium coco sulfate is an anionic surfactant that is ECOCERT and BDIH friendly. It has a pH of 10-11 and is derived from coconut oil. It is a water-soluble surfactant that is sold in solid form. It’s usually used in non-soap shampoo bars and/or bar cleaners (syndet bars).
Plantapon SF is a mix of vegetable-based surfactants (coconut, corn, and palm based) that can be used in a variety of gentle cleansing products like shampoos, shower gels, and facial cleansers. It includes sodium cocoamphoacetate, lauryl glucoside, sodium cocoyl glutamate, sodium lauryl glucose carboxylate, and glycerin. It has a pH between 6.5 and 7.5.
Because this is a mix of surfactants, it can be a good choice for those who are just delving into working with surfactants. You can easily mix up formulations without needing to buy a lot of raw materials or doing a lot of work. (I’ll work on getting up some recipes that use this as soon as I can.)
Completely natural surfactants
While not as effective as the other more processed surfactants derived from natural sources, those looking for a completely natural alternative may be interested in studying some of these natural surfactants. These plant based cleansers all have natural saponins that are a type of non-ionic surfactant. They can be used alone or combined with the other surfactants for a more effective final product.
Soap Nuts (Soap Berries, Aritha)
The fruits taken from the sapindus trees/shrubs from the lychee family have saponins which are natural non-ionic surfactants. They are usually called either soap nuts or soap berries, and they clean without creating much foam.
You can either throw a cloth bag of them in with your laundry to naturally wash your clothes, or you can steep them in warm water to extract a liquid that can be used for cleaning. Make just enough for what you’ll need and you can freeze the rest.
Liquid Yucca Extract
Liquid yucca extract is a natural non-ionic surfactant that comes from the yucca plant, a desert plant that has natural saponins of its own. While you can add it to your homemade shampoos, yucca extract is also used in gardening to help get nutrients to the roots of other plants by washing away concentrated salts that build up.
Shikakai powder is another plant with natural saponins which are natural non-ionic surfactants. It is normally used in hair care as a very natural “shampoo.” It naturally has a low pH which makes it ideal for hair care. It’s said to be good for all hair types, especially those that are prone to breakage and damage. Like with the other natural surfactants, you can either combine it with other surfactants or use it on its own. To use it on its own, you make a paste by mixing the powder with warm water and running it through your wet hair once it the paste has cooled. You then leave it to act for 10-15 minutes before rinsing it out. It may slightly darken hair.
Soapwort is another plant that has been used for many years as a soap alternative. It can be used to clean the skin, wash your hair, or even as a laundry soap. It’s especially good for delicate fabrics. To use soapwort, you need to make an infusion of the soapwort in water, and then you can use the resulting liquid as a liquid soap alternative.
Thanks for this post very informative and I like how you also included natural surfactants. I have shikakai powder and I’m wondering if there’s a ratio of surfactant to liquid? If that makes sense.
Tracy Ariza, DDS
I’ve used the powder directly in my hair after making a paste of it with just enough water to get a consistency that can be applied to hair comfortably.
Other than that, I’m not really sure of the other applications of shikakai.
You do have to be careful not to get it in your eyes as it can be very irritating to the eyes.
I am soo amazed to see this blog, really informative and worth reading it..also not to forget that the blog is too the point, really appreciate it. Doing really a great job, Keep it up. Just a quick question can we mix a natural non ionic surfactant like soapnuts/ Shikhakai/ yucca extract etc with an anionic surfactant like sci and with amphoteric surfactant like capb for making shampoo with some herbal water or hydrosols infusion? Whats your say on it? will be great if you can help me out with formulation 🙈
Tracy Ariza, DDS
Yes, that is generally fine. You’d have to experiment, though, to see how they work together. Without actually trying it, I can’t really predict the results.
Be careful with powdered alternatives like shikakai- as any organic material in the product can make it much harder to preserve. The easiest to add would probably be the yucca extract as it generally comes as a liquid that has already been preserved, making it less likely to be problematic.
I have a coconut sensitivity and have a devil of a time finding a surfactant without coconut oil. I would appreciate some suggestions on this. Thank you! It was a gray article
Tracy Ariza, DDS
Unfortunately, that’s a very difficult issue. I’ve asked about it in my various formulating groups and it seems that it depends more on the suppliers than on the actual surfactant itself. (The same surfactant may be made from different ingredients in different places.)
So, you’d have to consult with a local supplier to see what, if anything, they have available.
I’ve had many people ask me this question recently, so hopefully, the suppliers will take notice and begin to offer more solutions soon! (I’m thinking about adding a section dedicated to this in this post- to help highlight the problem!)
Thanks for this great article ,really educating.please how do I combine surfactant for shower gel and yet effective but not harsh? I want to make a shower gel
Tracy Ariza, DDS
I generally use a mix of a couple of different types of surfactants- just as I do with my homemade shampoos. I thicken the mixture with some xanthan gum. You can take a look at my baby wash and shampoo or my clarifying shampoo as guidelines.
There generally isn’t much of a difference between shampoos and shower gels. The main difference is generally the pH. (generally around 4.5-5 for shampoos and slightly higher for shower gels). I go into more information about pH in my post about the importance of pH in cosmetics.
You can adjust up or down the amount of surfactant used depending on your needs.
I was looking through your shampoo recipes, I’m trying to craft a gentle shampoo for super sensitive skin that still cleanses effectively. For the past year I’ve been struggling tremendously with either an itchy, dry scalp or an itchy, dandruffy scalp (for which I use Happy Cappy to soothe). I have a lot of sensitivities (I don’t even wash my face except with fresh cut aloe vera twice a week and I only moisturize with Kasandrinos olive oil) and I can’t find a shampoo that doesn’t bother me— Vanicream’s Free & Clear shampoo is causing so much friction my hair comes out in clumps and it also dries out my scalp. Ouidad shampoo caused my back to break out and folliculitis on my scalp. I’ve tried a few gentle baby shampoos and while some don’t cause as much inflammation, nothing is solving this issue. My hair is straight and wasn’t thick to start, but now that I’ve lost a LOT of it, it gets greasier even faster, and I need a shampoo that still washes away the excess sebum/dirt—I can barely go longer than a day without shampooing before it looks greasy. Recipes I should start with? Advice?
And do you think glycerin (or other humectants) could be problematic if the atmospheric humidity is low?
Tracy Ariza, DDS
Sorry for the late reply!
My son had strong break at the beginning of the month (almost 2 weeks worth here!) and I got really behind on my comments and emails. Yours just happened to be the oldest unanswered comment on the blog. (Sorry about that!)
First, lets talk about the greasiness. When I took one of the courses in natural haircare formation, one of the things that we studied was that when you first switch to more natural haircare, it can take a while for your hair to adapt to milder cleansers. At first, your hair will be feel more greasy, and the normal reaction for people is to wash more often to remove the oils that your scalp is making to protect you and your hair from the shampoos. While it’s difficult to do, the best thing to do is to use milder cleansers and space out the cleanings as much as you can. Eventually, the greasiness should go away.
During the confinement last year, we weren’t allowed out of our houses for any reason other than grocery shopping or doctor visits, basically. Only one person was supposed to leave the house (the same one every time). Because my husband had to check on his fishing boat, he was the one who did the shopping. Anyway, I didn’t leave my house for around 2 months and tried only washing my hair with shikakai powder mixed with a bit of amla powder during those more than 2 months.
I really thought I would hate it, but I didn’t. (The process for applying is messy, but other than that, I liked the way it made my hair feel.) I got to the point that I used that maybe once a week and didn’t do anything else to my hair. (I wasn’t dying it or styling it or anything else either.) It took a few weeks for my hair to get accustomed to it, but my hair looked great when I used it. (Since then, I’ve gone back to shampoos as I’m constantly experimenting with new kinds, but anyway…?)
My point is that I think you should start with something mild, and try to draw out the time between washings as much as you can. Perhaps try washing with conditioner between washings, if you can find one that works for you, if you really feel your hair needs it. You can even wash with only water if you feel you need something. I did that for a long time too. (Another experiment! ? I actually went for several months only washing my hair with water. It eventually also adapted to that!)
As for the humectants… They can be problematic in any extreme climate (very low or very high humidity). At low humidity, it can actually draw moisture from your hair rather than obtain it from the air.
Have you tried washing with something like yucca extract? Or maybe even a solution of either soapnuts or soapwort? (I haven’t personally washed with those, but they also might be worth a shot.)
I found your blog very informative. I am thinking to use coco glucoside with xanthan gum as thickener and germall plus for preservatives. but I wonder if i have to change these to natural (or at least close to natural) for sensitive oily skin. Could you please recommend a surfactant for sensitive skin and which thickener would work with which tye of preservatives? What can you say about Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate surfactant, which one would work well with preservatives and thickener? Will DLS work with oils? I would appreciate your feedback. Thank you.
Tracy Ariza, DDS
Either of those surfactants are relatively mild and should be fine for most people with sensitive skin. There are always going to be exceptions because some people may have reactions to what ever ingredients the surfactants were made with. Some people have coconut allergies that cause a lot of issues because most effective have coconut as one of the ingredients. It’s modified enough that most people, even those with coconut allergies, shouldn’t have issues, but there are still some people who do.
You should be able to use the gums to thicken mixtures with either of those surfactants.
When you say oils, do you mean to add some essential oils for fragrance? Normally, you wouldn’t be adding oils with surfactants. While they have some solubilizing properties, it’s not generally enough to add large amounts of oil. You can generally add small amounts of essential oils. In any case, combining oils with surfactants only interferes with their cleansing ability and foaming. If you want to hydrate with oils, it’s best to do so after you’ve cleansed with the surfactants.
As for preservatives, you can generally use any preservative that is soluble in water that works at the pH for whatever product you’re making.
Wow, this is the most informative article I’ve read on surfactants! I am trying to make a nature household cleaner (think windex) and am messing with coconut oil, water and essential oils. I know I need some surfactants in there for the cleaning part but don’t want it to be too harsh. Any suggestions as to what I should try?
Thanks in advance for your help here!
Tracy Ariza, DDS
Well, I looked up Windex ingredients and they seem to use an anionic surfactant and an amphoteric one. Most of the anionic surfactants are on the harsh side. I personally don’t have a problem with that for cleaning around the house (vs. for use on the body). That’s why I use SLS in my homemade laundry detergent. If you ever make the laundry detergent, you could use a tiny bit of the mix with your other window cleaning ingredients.
The ones they chose are a bit harder to find, but you could try with other ones. Most of the gentler anionic surfactants (the best cleansers) are solid- like SCI or SLSA (the ones I used in my shampoo bar.) You could melt/dissolve a very tiny amount in water.
Coco betaine is a nice amphoteric one you could use.
I’d like to say that I personally wouldn’t add oil to the mix if you are using it for windows. I think it makes it streak. You could also try adding some alcohol to help it dry more quickly so it doesn’t streak. They often also have ammonia. You could try using that too if you aren’t avoiding it.
I’d suggest keeping the surfactant amount very low or they could also contribute to streaking on glass.
I hope that helps!
You could try
Are Coconut fatty acids and MCT oil the same?
Tracy Ariza, DDS
MCT oil is usually made from coconut oil and/or palm kernel oil. They fractionate the oil and then separate out only the medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). Coconut fatty acids are probably referring to the whole coconut oil. (Coconut oil is made up of a variety of fatty acids like caprylic acid, capric acid, lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, etc.) Coconut oil is generally solid when it’s colder than 76ºF and is only liquid when it’s warmer than that. MCT oil stays liquid even below 76ºF.
Thanks for being so informative. I really want to try coco betaine, but I can’t find it anywhere. I can find cocamidopropyl betaine, but after doing research, I discovered that the latter is different…..basically, the process is synthetic as opposed to the all natural process of making coco betaine. I would like to follow some of these recipies on this site, but it would be great if I can find the right surfactants for the job. If you can point me in the right direction, that would be great!
Tracy Ariza, DDS
Yes, you are correct! They act pretty similarly, so you can exchange one for the other, but if you are looking for a more natural product, coco betaine is obviously the best choice.
I buy it locally here in Spain from cremas-caseras.es. While they do send internationally, I’m not sure if it would be worth it with something like this (with shipping charges, customs, etc.)
Thank you for your content. I’m currently trying to make a feminine wash and wanted to know can you suggest a list of anionic surfactants I can use so the lather would be better yet gentle?
Tracy Ariza, DDS
The ones I can think of offhand are Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Sodium Coco Sulfate, and Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate.