What is a surfactant you may ask? Let Bubby guide you on that! This will be a lengthy, wordy, kind of boring article, but it's super duper important. We will try to make it as engaging as possible :)
Surfactants are compounds that are needed to remove dirt, grease and oil which are found in Laundry detergents, cleaning products, body care and cleansers. They can be called ‘emulsifiers’, ‘foaming agents’ or simply ‘soap ingredients’. Whatever the application and however you label it, the basic behavior of a surfactant is the same; to remove crud from the surface of whatever you are cleaning.
For example, let’s say you spill some salad dressing on your shirt, or you run a mud hero marathon. Whether salad dressing oil, dirt or sweat, these liquids are absorbed into the fabric of your clothing. A surfactants job is to bind and absorb these materials between the layers of oil and water and fabric. A surfactant, depending on the chemical composition, if it is Anionic, Nonionic or Cationic, will suspend, change or break down the contents to be removed by water. Laundry detergents use surfactants as one of the main ingredients for cleaning, so you can imagine all the surfactants that are released back into the water and why people are starting to pay attention to the long-term ramifications of unhealthy water.
In order to have a balanced product that covers all the basics of clean clothes, you should have ingredients that fight stains, kill odor causing bacteria, brighten, maintain proper PH levels and work with all the different minerals found in the vastly varying water systems of the world. Throw cloth diapering in the mix and now you have pee-pee and poo-poo and dozens of synthetic and non-synthetic materials to contend with.
When dissecting surfactants for environmental and safety purposes, you can find your answers on the ingredients list. Understanding an ingredients label takes a bit of green washing translation. Unfortunately, labeling laws are incredibly slack where companies are able to manipulate the wording into a seemingly safe category. A company, for example my simply put ‘surfactant’ on their ingredients list, or ‘Soap ingredients’ which could be a single chemical or dozens of combined chemicals. Typically, you’re looking at 3 categories: Natural surfactants, Naturally derived surfactants and Synthetic Surfactant. I know what you’re thinking, “Oy! What is Bubby going on about now?”, and that’s fair (I am known to go on and on). But stay with me! This is important, let’s explain:
Natural Surfactants are derived from animal or vegetable fats such as olive, palm kernel, coconut oil, or avocado. These oils are traditionally made into Soap with the use of sodium hydroxide or, in ancient times-wood ash. Soap has been used since 1550 BCE in Egypt, to pioneer days and right through to today. In between those eras, are thousands of generations washing clothing with soap and water. Bubbys with their washboard scrubbing away with a bar of soap is a common memory of how laundry was done until more modern techniques came along. Natural Surfactants are made by nature, require time and care to make and have been used for thousands of years.
Naturally derived surfactants
As times passes and technology came along, companies found ways to modify soap ingredients, isolate certain components and even Frankenstein some of them into new components. In a mass market, soap making is a lengthy process that requires time and patience. As with human nature, we’re always looking for something cheaper and easier. Some surfactants have not been tested since 1976, not to mention their chemical reaction to other chemicals or the human body. Quietly being unleashed into the public’s eye drop by drop and into natural watersheds, only in recent years have we been discovering that some of these ingredients are actual skin irritants and worse, have done immeasurable damage to our water and aquatic life.
I know what you’re thinking – BUBBY SAVE THE FISH! And I agree, sorry to tell you these harsh truths.
Naturally derived surfactants may be modified from coconut oil or other fatty acid plant-based ingredients and isolated, hydrogenated and reconstructed to alter the molecular structure. This is where a lot of companies can get away with manipulating their ingredients list. Some companies are quite transparent about what they use, which is phenomenal, however some companies will use this ‘naturally derived plant base’ term to make you think you’re making great environmental choices (hellloooooo Green Washing!). In reality, though some better than others, the majority of naturally derived surfactants are very toxic to aquatic life, are known carcinogens or rated very high as a skin irritant. So, not so natural.
Natural Derived Surfactants can look like this: Potassium Coco Hydrolysed Collagen, Sodium Cocoyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate , Coconut fatty acids/fatty acids, Hydrated palm glycerides, Hydrogenated oils, Vegetable emulsifying wax , Cetyl palmitate , Glyceryl cocoate , Isopropyl lanolate , Natural foaming agents.
Okay, we’ve made it to the last one, we’re almost there and you’re quickly becoming a laundry pro! Synthetic and petrochemical surfactants are modern chemicals; most are created under very energy-intensive conditions with high usage of fossil fuels (more air water pollution - yuck). The manufacturing process of these new ingredients change the natural vegetable oil composition into new molecules that are typically not found in nature. Even very low concentrations of synthetic surfactants in surface water can be highly toxic to all forms of aquatic life. I will repeat what I said earlier: BUBBY SAVE THE FISH! And believe me, we’re trying! Bubby does not use any of these surfactants in our products, we love fish (and I’m not just talking about gefilte fish).
If you are unsure of a certain chemical on your laundry list, try researching on their website www.ewg.org and read up! There are many synthetic surfactants that are less harmful than others, but whether or not you want to use them is personal opinion based on your own research. You can also feel free to send us a message and we’d be happy to help you understand our laundry labels (spoiler alert: ours is easier to understand; it’s all natural J)
Here is a list of naturally derived, synthetic and petrochemical based surfactants as well as hidden terms that you may find on your ingredients label at home:
Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS), Disodium Dioctyl Sulfosuccinate, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Disodium Oleamide Sulfosuccinate, Laureth or Lauryl Sulfate, Lauryl or Cocoyl Sarcosine, Triethanolamine (TEA), 1,4-dioxane, Benzalkonium Chloride, Cetalkonium Chloride, Cetrimonium Chloride, Acetylated lanolin alcohol, Capric/caprylic triglyceride, Eucerin (petroleum jelly)
Mineral oil, petreolatum.
Need more info? Here's a super helpful blog that digs a little deeper!
Want to use only natural surfactants? Here's a guide on that!
On your first order