Are Surfactants Toxic? The Dangers & Alternatives | Branch Basics

By Marilee Nelson |

Are Surfactants Toxic? The Dangers & Alternatives | Branch Basics

You've probably heard about surfactants if you are into DIY, non-toxic cleaning and personal care products.

Surfactants are the backbone of cleaning products —compounds that enhance the cleaning, foaming, conditioning, and emulsification properties of soaps, detergents, and various other household and industrial products.

There are synthetic surfactants, naturally derived synthetic surfactants, natural surfactants, and natural soaps with varying degrees of toxicity. Some synthetic surfactants are highly toxic, and a few, such as natural soaps, natural surfactants, and some naturally derived synthetic surfactants, are not. 

In this article, you’ll learn to discern a safe surfactant from a toxic one, spot them on labels, and find the best alternatives.

What are Surfactants?

Surfactants are a type of compound that reduces the surface tension of water. 

They are widely used in cleaning and personal care products because they facilitate water emulsification with other cleaning ingredients and help stir up and remove dirt, grime, and debris.

Here’s a quick explanation of how a surfactant works within a cleaning product to make the formula come alive.

When surfactants are added to water, their molecules combine to create structures called micelles. 

Micelles allow the water-loving components of the surfactant (known as hydrophilic* heads), which, in most surfactants, are electrically charged to attract and surround soils, while the water-hating components (known as hydrophobic** tails) remove the surrounding soils from the surface and into the cleaning product.

*hydro=water / philic=loving
**hydro=water / phobic=hating or fearing 

Surfactants also act as: 

  • Foaming agents,
  • Thickeners,
  • Conditioners,
  • Moisturizers,
  • Anti-static compounds,
  • And wetting agents.

Surfactants are classified based on their method of action. The following is a fundamental, non-technical description of surfactants. 

Types of Surfactants  

Surfactants are categorized into four types based on the charge of the active part of the molecule called the hydrophilic heads. The charge may be positive, negative, or neutral. The surfactants are further classified according to their origin - natural or synthesized from natural or petroleum products.

EWG Healthy Cleaning rates surfactants overall as an F, as some pose prodigious environmental and human health challenges. Many are non-degradable and persistent, producing by-products with ecological, human, and aquatic health consequences. 

But, there is a wide range of surfactants - from safe, natural soaps, natural surfactants, and naturally derived synthetic surfactants to the very toxic cationic surfactants and the anionic surfactants containing PFAS chemicals.

Anionic Surfactants

Anionic surfactants (EWG-rated F overall) have a strong negative charge, are high-foaming, and are exceptionally effective cleaners but are considered irritants. They are the predominant surfactants used in hard surface cleaners.

Anionic surfactants are highly effective cleaning agents, but there are caveats. 

The safe, natural soaps are anionic surfactants used as cleaning agents for thousands of years. The caveats:

  • Irritate the eyes and the lungs if inhaled when aerosolized
  • May create a soap scum on surfaces (especially in hard water)
  • Leave a residue or cause graying of fabrics over time.

Synthetic anionic surfactants have some safer options, while others are highly toxic. 

      Safer options - some with restrictions:

Two familiar examples are  sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and  sodium              lauryl sulfate (SLS), popular anionic surfactants in cleaning products.

  • SLES (EWG rated 1-3 - with restricted use) and SLS (EWG rated 1-2 with restricted use) are considered skin, eye, lung, and mouth irritants.
  • SLES has an added environmental concern. In manufacture, it may be contaminated with the toxic by-products, 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide. The EPA classifies ethylene oxide as a human carcinogen and 1,4-dioxane as a Group B2 probable human carcinogen.  Ingredients with these by-products are a source of great debate in the United States.
  • SLS and SLES are banned by the European Union (EU).

 Other synthetic anionic surfactants are full of caveats:

  • Are toxic to humans and the environment
  • Are skin, lung, and eye irritants
  • They may have harmful by-products
  • Pose additional hazards to human health
  • Generate serious environmental pollution
  • They may be persistent in the body and environment

      In fact, anionic surfactants include a group of surfactants with a very dark side.

      • The PFAS-containing surfactants, considered "forever chemicals," are found in makeups, stain-resistant, water-repellent, and non-stick formulas.
      • The PFAS chemicals are not typically included in the ingredient list.
      • In October 2023, a bill was introduced on behalf of cleaning product makers that would deny Americans the right to know all ingredients of product formulas. In particular, this bill pertains to PFAS chemicals, which manufacturers have been hiding in products for years without disclosure.
      • Public awareness of PFAS chemicals is growing, and consumer questioning is increasing. The dangers of chemicals considered PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) or “forever chemicals” are too well-documented to ignore. 

      Given their widespread use and toxicity issues, we must become aware of toxic anionic surfactants (especially the PFAS-containing surfactants) used in our personal care, baby care, cleaning, food, and laundry products.

        The PFAS-containing surfactants have no place in a healthy home and should be avoided in cleaning, laundry, or personal care products.

        Nonionic Surfactants

        Nonionic surfactants (EWG-rated D overall) have no charge and are the mildest of the surfactant categories. They are highly effective cleaning agents with exceptional degreasing properties. 

        Like anionic surfactants, nonionic surfactants are powerful cleaning agents, but there are caveats. 

        The mild alkyl glucosides (EWG-rated 2) are the stars that shine the brightest in the entire range of surfactant categories.

        • This nonionic surfactant group contains the safest and least irritating surfactants (surpassing even the natural soaps that irritate the eyes and lungs if the product is sprayed and inhaled). They do not contain toxic by- products and are readily biodegradable. 
        • They are the only synthetic surfactant the EU declares non-toxic and even suitable for the skin and washing babies!  This is why we chose the alkyl glucosides for our Branch Basics Concentrate.

        Important note: The alkyl glucosides are technically correctly identified as  naturally derived synthetic surfactants even though they are commonly referred to as natural surfactants.

        The reason for using the word synthetic in the description is not because they are derived from a petroleum product and highly processed but because of the number of steps taken to process the natural source - coconut, palm, or rapeseed (canola) oils - to create the surfactant. 

        This is tantamount to the term “processed or refined food” when referring not to a chemicalized process or chemical addition but a simple process like taking a kernel of wheat and grinding it into flour.  That step of grinding makes a flour product a processed food.

        Cationic Surfactants

        • Cationic surfactants (EWG-rated F overall) have a strong positive charge and provide disinfectant and biocidal properties to formulas. Most are petrochemical in origin, non-biodegradable, and ecotoxic to aquatic life. They have very specialized uses in cleaning. They are not effective detergents or foaming agents but provide anti-static and softening for fabrics and hair rinses. Many are heavy-duty disinfectants that kill bacteria and potentially create antibiotic-resistant super bugs.  Cationic surfactants are toxic to humans and the environment, even in very low concentrations. 

        Amphoteric Surfactants

        • Amphoteric Surfactants (EWG rated D overall) have both a positive and negative charge, foam less than the anionic and cationic surfactants, are less irritating than the anionic and cationic surfactants, and are used primarily in facial cleaners and shampoos.  Examples of amphoteric surfactants are cocamidopropyl betaine (EWG rated 1-5) and sodium cocoamphoacetate (EWG rated 1). Amphoteric surfactants have poor emulsification and cleaning capabilities but combine well with other surfactants. 

        Environmental Risks of Synthetic Surfactants

        Awareness and concern about the ecological impacts of surfactants have, in general, superseded human health concerns. The environmental risks of synthetic surfactants are enormous. 

        Yet, many scientists, experts, and chemical, cosmetic, agricultural, and cleaning companies continue to tout toxic synthetic surfactants as safe, effective, and essential.

        This is unconscionable and another example of regulatory agencies asleep at the wheel regarding their documented toxicity to humans and the environment.

        For example, according to a 2021 scientific paper published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research International, synthetic surfactants have enormous adverse effects on humans and the environment. They are among the most challenging emerging contaminants as they constantly enter our waterways from our sinks, dishwashers, showers, washing machines, etc.

        This quote from the paper speaks volumes about the safety concerns of surfactant pollution.

        “Some of the commercially available surfactants pose a severe environmental and public threat to humans and ecosystems. For instance, anionic surfactants, predominantly linear alkylbenzene sulfonates (LAS), cause biochemical, pathological, physiological, and other impacts on aquatic/terrestrial ecosystems (Petrie et al. 2015; Zhu et al. 2018). Also, LAS causes skin irritation and respiratory problems (Collivignarelli et al. 2019) and reduces the resistance of aquatic biota against environmental stress, reproduction, and growth processes (Hampel et al. 2012; Moura et al. 2019). Surfactants usually increase the solubility of contaminants and thus facilitate eutrophication (Zanoletti et al. 2017). Also, the increasing hydrophobic properties of the surfactants proportionally increase their toxicity (Borghi et al. 2011). These vast impacts consequently raise public health and environmental concern about the high concentration of surfactants.”

        The paper also discusses concerns about synthetic surfactants finding their way into drinking water due to the challenges of removing them from wastewater, which often finds its way back into our water supply.

        Another paper titled “Surfactant pollution, an emerging threat to ecosystem: Approaches for effective bacterial degradation: published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, states that synthetic surfactants can penetrate cell membranes and thus cause toxicity to living organisms. 

        Surfactant accumulation can cause significant gill damage and loss of sight in fish. At the same time, their ability to alter the physiological and biochemical parameters of water decreases the amount of dissolved oxygen, negatively affecting the entire ecosystem and allowing dangerous bacteria to thrive.

        Bottom line: Toxic surfactants are a ubiquitous and persistent environmental disaster, especially for aquatic life. These ingredients have no place in a healthy home and should be avoided in cleaning, laundry, or personal care products.

        Human Health Implications 

        Research clearly shows that many synthetic surfactants have serious human health implications.

        This fact has largely been ignored as a priority in formulating cleaning products as they are ubiquitous in cleaning products, laundry products, personal care products, hair care products, and anything that contains detergent and foams.

        For example, acute and chronic exposure to anionic surfactants alone have been linked to the following adverse reactions:

        In general, harmful synthetic surfactants are a serious concern for the environment and are considered among the most challenging emerging contaminants to control as they are constantly entering our waterways from our sinks, dishwashers, showers, washing machines, etc., and have “enormous adverse effects on humans and the environment.

        As you can see, surfactants' human and environmental are intimately intertwined. So it’s in our very best interest to choose non-toxic alternatives.

        Common Products That Contain Surfactants 

        As discussed, synthetic surfactants are used in household cleaning and personal care products.

        They’re also used in the production of dyes, pigments, and pesticides. 

        Here’s a quick reference list of common products that may contain synthetic surfactants:

        • Cleaning products
        • Laundry products
        • Skincare products
        • Cosmetics
        • Hair care products
        • Baby products
        • Dish soaps and dish detergents
        • Hand soap
        • Body wash
        • Any products containing synthetic dyes or pigments
        • Products that claim to be water-repellent, resistant to stains, or non-stick
        • Building materials, especially finishes
        • Pesticides, fungicides, insecticides

        Toss Toxic Cleaning Products 

        Reading labels can go a long way in helping protect yourself from toxic surfactants. However, cleaning companies are not required to list all ingredients on their labels. If there is no ingredient list, that is a toxic red flag. The product should not be used or kept in the home.

        For cleaning products with an ingredient list, we recommend using The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database and app, which rates ingredients in cleaning and personal care products on a scale of “1” (least toxic) to “10” (most harmful).  We suggest that all ingredients in each product kept in the home be EWG rated a one or two (with some exceptions).

        Learn more in 3 Tools You Need To Become Your Own Product Advocate.

        Check out this document if you want a deeper dive into surfactant chemistry and technical details. .

        Alternatives to Toxic Surfactants 

        You'd think there were no safer, non-toxic alternatives at the rate toxic synthetic surfactants are used. Fortunately, as mentioned above, that is not true! Here is a short review of safe surfactants - natural surfactants, natural soap, and naturally derived synthetic surfactants.

        Natural Surfactants 

        Various natural surfactants not mentioned in the four categories above are utilized in some non-toxic cleaning and clean beauty products.

        Natural surfactants, such as soapwort and other saponin-containing plants, have been used as cleaners and soaps for millennia. People noticed that when they used the leaves of these plants to help wipe off dirt at a stream, the saponins in these plants would foam and lather and aid in cleaning.

        These surfactants are all rated a one by EWG, are unrefined botanicals, and are biodegradable. However, they have the potential to be skin and eye irritants and can be difficult to stabilize in formulas.

        For DIY products that do not require consistent, uniform foaming and product presentation results, saponin-containing, 100% unrefined botanicals can often be used as natural surfactants. 

        Some examples include:

        Liquid Castile Soap or other Natural Soaps

        Natural soap is nature’s original anionic surfactant! 

        Liquid natural soaps, like castile soap, can be used as a non-toxic base for nearly any DIY cleaning product or personal care cleanser.

        Some of our favorite fragrance-free natural soaps include:

        We recommend choosing an unscented natural soap to avoid exposure to toxic fragrances.

        Note: The disadvantages of natural soaps in cleaning products are the following:

        • They are eye irritants.
        • They are lung irritants when the product is sprayed and inhaled, so care in use is advised. 
        • They precipitate in hard water and leave a soap scum
        • With repeated washings, colored fabrics and whites may gray over time 

        Branch Basics wanted to create a product that not only cleaned well but, first and foremost, was safe to use.  We wanted a formula that didn’t irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs and leave a soap scum. That is why we chose the following category of safe surfactants, the nonionic alkyl glucosides, for our formula. 

        Naturally Derived Synthetic Surfactants 

        Today, we have access to the stable, predictable, efficacious, non-toxic natural surfactants, the alkyl glucosides. Alkyl glucoside surfactants are derived from coconut, rapeseed, corn, and sugar cane plants.

        Branch Basics chose the cleanest, most non-toxic, plant-based, naturally-derived versions of the glucoside family,  Coco Glucoside and Decyl Glucoside, along with other ingredients proven to be safe. Our Concentrate is MADE SAFE certified and has been third-party verified not to be an eye or skin irritant.  

        These surfactants are rated “two” by EWG, come from non-GMO renewable plant sources, do not irritate the eyes, skin, or lungs, have no toxic by-products, are 100% biodegradable, and are suitable for even babies and the most delicate skin.

        Toss the Toxins With Branch Basics

        If you’re ready to break up with synthetic surfactants without sacrificing cleaning power, you must check out Branch Basics.

        Branch Basics Starter Kits (available in reusable plastic or glass) contain everything you need to replace every single cleaning and laundry product in your home with just one powerful Concentrate. Talk about simplifying your life!

        We also offer: 

        Beyond products, our Wellness Center offers hundreds of articles, podcasts, and guides on everything natural cleaning, holistic nutrition, natural parenting, non-toxic building and home, and more to empower your low-tox lifestyle.

        We hope this information will help you on your journey to create a healthier home and family.

        Marilee Nelson

        Marilee Nelson

        Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.