5 Effective Natural Surfactants for Household Products

By Marilee Nelson |

5 Effective Natural Surfactants for Household Products

Surfactants are an essential constituent of non-toxic and conventional cleaning products. 

Surfactants serve many functions, including reducing the surface tension of water and helping water mix with other ingredients to form a homogenized and effective cleaner.  

Unfortunately, many synthetic surfactants, like those found in commercial cleaning products, can have detrimental health impacts on humans and the environment. 

This is why choosing non-toxic cleaning products with safe surfactants is vital. 

In this article, we’ll cover the following: 

  • What are surfactants?
  • Why we want to use products with safe surfactants 
  • How to spot toxic surfactants on labels 
  • A brief evolution of surfactant use 
  • A spotlight on the safest surfactants
  • What surfactants did we chose to use in Branch Basics products and why.

Surfactants, Simplified 

The word surfactant means surface-acting agent.

As mentioned previously, surfactants reduce the surface tension of water.

What does that mean (and why does it matter)?

We’ve all observed water beading on a surface. The beading of the water droplets is surface tension in action.

To make water work as a cleaner or within a cleaning solution, we need it to disperse and emulsify so it can trap dirt and grime, and penetrate fabrics.

This is where surfactants come in.

Surfactants act like emulsifiers, allowing water to mix with soap, detergents, and other cleaning agents.

They also act as wetting agents and stir up activity on surfaces to help trap dirt and grime so it can be removed during cleaning. 

Here’s how that works:

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) 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.

The Unintended Consequences of Surfactants 

First, we will dive into why it is essential to understand the reasons we want to use products with safer surfactants in our homes.

Even the natural surfactants and natural soaps have consequences. Proper use is crucial to both human health and the environment.

For example, plant-based surfactants and pure natural soaps, which are safe for people, can impact waterways and aquatic life if they are not used appropriately.  

On the other hand, some synthetic surfactants shouldn't be used at all as human health and ecological balance are at stake! 

Health Risks of Synthetic Surfactants

We are learning the hard way that the priority in formulating products should always be human health and sustainability, alongside function and efficacy. 

We find ourselves amid a national health crisis as over 50% of adults and children have chronic illnesses, and this crisis has been linked to exposure to harmful chemicals. 

As you learn more about toxins, you quickly realize their environmental effects on are mirrored by their impact on humans and vice versa.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that synthetic surfactants found in cleaning, laundry, and personal care products pose safety concerns for people.

Exposure to synthetic surfactants listed above has been linked to:

Environmental Risks of Synthetic Surfactants

Awareness of the environmental impact of surfactants has been a growing public concern. Surfactants with high toxicity levels and low levels of biodegradability pose an increasing menace to all life forms on our planet.

Surfactants can increase the toxicity of other pollutants in the water and penetrate cell membranes, causing varying toxicological effects. 

For example, the discovery that the anionic perfluorinated surfactants (PFAS chemicals) are contaminating our waterways, farmlands, food supply, and municipal water alerts us to a human and environmental health emergency.  PFAS chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment and build up in the body. 

Studies show PFAS in rainwater, the blood and tissues of people and wildlife worldwide, including polar bears and other arctic life. For more information see our article, "Are Surfactants Toxic". 

Some of the documented environmental detriments of synthetic surfactants include:

  • Biochemical, pathological, physiological, and other impacts on aquatic/terrestrial ecosystems
  • Reduced resistance of aquatic biota against environmental stress, reproduction, and growth processes
  • Surfactants can increase the solubility of other toxins, leading to more significant pollution and explosive growth of harmful microorganisms.
  • Surfactants can penetrate the cell membranes of aquatic life, leading to toxicity in living organisms.
  • Gill damage and loss of sight in fish
  • Unnatural foaming in aquatic environments

Fortunately, we have tools to help us identify and avoid these toxins in cleaning, laundry, and personal care products.

How to Spot Toxic Surfactants on a Label

Unfortunately, non-toxic on a label is not enough!

However, you don't have to be a chemist or a scientist, as there are tools that empower "YOU" to be your own product advocate.  See the excerpt below, in italics, from this article, Three Tools You Need to Become Your Own Product Advocate 

Reading labels can be helpful, but "Non-Toxic" on a label is not enough as many products, even “natural” ones, use strategies to help themselves appear safer or greener. Reviewing each ingredient in a product is the best way to ensure that the products in your home are safe. It is so simple. You can start right away!

Cleaning and Personal Care Products

  • EWG Skin Deep is our favorite tool to rate cleaning, skin, beauty, and personal care products. In our “Toss the Toxins to Create a Healthy Home,” we recommend that products kept in the home should have all ingredients rated a 1 or 2 on EWG Skin Deep (with some usage exceptions). Go to EWG Skin Deep’s website and search the ingredients. The ingredients are rated 1-10, with 1 being the safest to 10 being the most toxic. Toss all products with any ingredient rated 3 or more. Hint: Start with the last ingredient on the list to save time,. Typically, you will find preservatives here, and you may only have to look at one ingredient to find a rating of 3 or above. Once you find an ingredient rated 3 or more, look no more and “toss that product.”

Note: People trying to heal inflammatory skin conditions, hormone disruption, or chronic illness should also avoid products used on the skin with the following ingredients that can be inflammatory (citric acid, sodium coco sulfate, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, phenoxyethanol, and any ingredient with a quaternary ammonium component like polyquarternium - 11) even though they are rated a 1 or 2 on EWG Skin Deep.  

  • Think Dirty is another great app to rate cleaning, skin, beauty, and personal care products; scan your product barcode, and Think Dirty will rate it immediately. We recommend products rated “0” on this app. Get the Think Dirty app here. 

The Evolution of Surfactant Use 

Natural Surfactants 

Since ancient times, people would grab plants growing near water sources to help scrub off dirt. People noticed that some plants would produce a lather and suds up when agitated in water, which aided the cleaning process. These plants had natural constituents with surfactant properties derived from the plants' fat-and water-soluble elements.

We now call the active component in plants that produces the suds and surfactant action saponins. The Latin word, Sapo, means soap! The name (genus Saponaria) comes from the soapwort plant's leaves and roots, from which soaps are made.

The sudsy, gentle cleaning action of plants like soapwort, quillaja, and yucca are examples of natural plants that have aided people around the world to clean throughout history.  

These surfactants are not typically used in premade non-toxic cleaners because of their unpredictable foaming properties and tendency to degrade.

However, they often do the trick for DIY formulas. We love using Soap Nuts, for example, as an eco-friendly DIY laundry detergent alternative.

Here are some others to consider:

  • Quillaja
  • Shikakai powder
  • Soapberry
  • Soapwort
  • Liquid yucca extract

Note: Our attempt to create our Branch Basics Concentrate included incorporating natural surfactants, but we could not make them work for the above reasons.

Natural Soaps

A seminal moment occurred in an ancient civilization in Mesopotamia, around 2300 B.C., when the art of soap making was born and the power of surfactant action began to change history.

Combining animal fat with an alkali (ash) resulted in a process called saponification.

The discovery that the end product of this concoction was a phenomenal cleaner proved to be a game changer. The surfactant molecules in the soap provided the cleansing function, paving the way to improved personal hygiene and sanitation practices throughout history! 

Unfortunately, the importance of personal cleanliness was not fully understood until the late 1600s when people began to make the connection between disease and hygienics. The art of soap-making flourished, and bars of soap were manufactured.

The first liquid soap was developed in 1898 by B. J. Johnson. Palmolive was named after its ingredients, palm and olive oil (a far cry from Palmolive’s current ingredient list). 

Soap making is an art today.  You can make your own natural soaps. There are endless recipes and tutorials online for DIY all-natural homemade soaps.

The Creation of Synthetic Surfactants

A new era in creating cleaning products was born out of necessity. Ingredients used to make natural soaps were in short supply due to World War I (1914–1918). 

German chemists produced a synthetic alternative to natural soaps, called a detergent, that remarkably removed the dull and grayish tinge that resulted from repeatedly washing whites and colored fabrics with natural soaps!

These detergents were used primarily in industry applications until after World War II. 

Harry A. Cole, a chemist, took advantage of the properties of the new synthetic surfactants (detergents) and created the first liquid cleaning soap, PineSol, during the Great Depression of 1929. The original ingredient list reflected the rise of synthetic surfactants.

In 1953, a few years after World War II (1939-1945), the sale of detergents in the United States eclipsed the sale of natural soaps. The continued development of synthetic surfactants began to govern the development of cleaning products (from automatic dishwasher powders to cleaning and laundry products to hand soaps). 

Types of Surfactants

From this history, the four types of surfactants used in today's cleaning industry arose: anionic, nonionic, amphoteric and cationic.  In this article, we will focus on safe anionic, nonionic, and amphoteric surfactants. 

Anionic Surfactants

Anionic surfactants have a strong negative charge. They are highly effective cleaners and are the surfactant category used most in household cleaning and personal care products.

When added to water, these negatively charged surfactants ionize, allowing them to bind to positively charged particles like clay, dirt, and oily stains. They also act as foaming agents and thickeners.

  • The very first anionic surfactant was natural soap. Natural soaps, along with the natural surfactants were the world's safe cleaning surfactants for thousands of years. Today, natural castile soaps are still very popular non-toxic cleaners.

Be aware that natural soaps are safe to use if you understand that:

Synthetic anionic surfactants, in general, are eye, lung, and skin irritants, and many have serious human health and environmental impacts. For more information, see our article "Are Surfactants Toxic?"

Note: For the above reasons, we did not choose to create our Branch Basics Concentrate with a natural soap as our surfactant.

Nonionic Surfactants

Nonionic surfactants, in comparison, have a neutral charge, are not skin, eye, and lung irritants, are often used in household cleaning and personal care products, and are best suited for emulsifying oils and removing organic soil. 

  • The nonionic synthetic surfactants are mild and typically do not irritate the eyes, skin, or lungs but may have toxic by-products that impact human health, aquatic life, and the environment.

One category of nonionic surfactants, the alkyl glucoside family, stands out as a stellar option for safe, effective cleaning products for the following reasons:

  • Do not irritate the skin, eyes, or lungs.
  • Have no toxic by-products
  • Do not produce a soap scum
  • They are readily biodegradable.
  • Some alkyl glucoside surfactants are so safe that the European Union (EU) sanctions their use in skin and baby products. 

Four Safe Naturally Derived Synthetic* Surfactants from the Alkyl Glucoside Family

*These naturally-derived surfactants are technically considered synthetic because of the processing of alcohols involved. However, they are considered non-toxic, naturally derived products. 

1. Coco Glucoside

Coco Glucoside’s safety and versatility make it a common surfactant in many non-toxic and natural cleaning, laundry, and personal care products.

As a nonionic surfactant, it acts as a natural emollient, moisturizer, conditioner, skin softener, cleanser, and excellent sulfate-free foaming agent.

Coco Glucoside is derived from coconut and rated a “2” by the Environmental Working Group

It is also 100% biodegradable, non-GMO, and considered “low risk” for development and reproductive health. It is appropriate for sensitive skin, irritated skin, or allergies. 

2. Decyl Glucoside

Nonionic Decyl Glucoside is a mild, natural, vegan, plant-derived, biodegradable, non-toxic, and sustainable surfactant derived from corn or coconuts. 

It is suitable for the most sensitive and delicate skin. It is commonly used as a non-toxic and eco-friendly alternative to conventional anionic surfactant sulfates (like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate).

Decyl Glucoside produces less stable foam than Coco Glucoside but is excellent for enhancing viscosity.

Get the full scoop on the benefits and functions of Decyl Glucoside here. 

3. Lauryl Glucoside

Like Decyl and Coco Glucoside, Lauryl Glucoside is a naturally derived surfactant that is ultra-gentle on even the most sensitive, delicate skin.

Lauryl Glucoside may be derived from palm kernel oil, corn sugar, or coconut and is rated 2 by the Environmental Working Group.

Lauryl Glucoside is a foaming agent, conditioner, and emulsifier and may be found in natural baby, personal care, cleaning, and laundry products.

4. Capryl Glucoside

Capryl Glucoside is a plant-derived surfactant from corn and natural oils like coconut and palm.

It is appropriate for sensitive skin and acts as a foaming agent, cleanser, and surfactant.

Capryl Glucoside is rated 2 by the Environmental Working Group, is ECOCERT certified, and is biodegradable.

Amphoteric Surfactants 

Amphoteric Surfactants have both a positive and negative charge and are less irritating and foaming than anionic and cationic surfactants.  Amphoteric surfactants have poor emulsification and cleaning capabilities but combine well with other surfactants. They are used primarily in personal care products, facial cleaners, and shampoos.   

Examples of safer amphoteric surfactants are cocoamidproply betaine (EWG rated 1-5) and sodium cocoamphoacetate (EWG rated 1).

5. Coco Betaine 

Cocamidopropyl betaine (CAPB) is a coconut-derived surfactant used in shampoo, conditioner, facial cleansers, soaps, body wash, bubble bath, hair dye, deodorant, and other personal care products.

Coco Betaine is biodegradable and does not cause harm to the environment.

It is considered harsher than Glucoside surfactants and is rated “1-5” by the Environmental Working Group due to potential concerns with contact allergies and immunotoxicity. We chose not to use Coco Betaine in Branch Basics products.

Cationic Surfactants 

Cationic surfactants are toxic to humans and the environment, even in very low concentrations. They are used in fabric softeners and disinfectants. There are no non-toxic options. For more information, see our article Are Surfactants Toxic?

Natural Surfactants in Branch Basics

The journey to create our Branch Basics Concentrate was full of challenges!

We tried natural surfactants as well as natural soaps on our journey to formulate Branch Basics products.

Initially, we were adamant that we only wanted 100% natural, unrefined, botanical surfactants like quillaja, soapbark, soapwort, and soapberry.

Unfortunately, these were dead-ends because they did not provide the cleaning, foaming, and degreasing power we needed in an all-purpose and versatile Concentrate.

We rejected natural soaps because of issues with eye and lung irritation, and  soap scum residues.

We were determined to offer a highly effective cleaner and a safe, super-gentle, plant-derived formula that didn't irritate the skin, eyes, or lungs.

We found a family of surfactants, the alkyl glucosides, that could be used separately or combined to produce a super-powerful, non-toxic concentrate.

Even though glucosides are technically considered naturally derived synthetic surfactants because of the processing of alcohols involved, they are considered non-toxic, natural ingredients.

The alkyl glucosides are the only surfactants the European Union (EU) sanctions in formulas for babies and those with sensitive skin. Glucosides are rated 2 on EWG, have no toxic by-products, do not form a soap scum, are environmentally friendly, and could be sourced from non-GMO plants.

Once we considered this fresh perspective, it was clear Glucoside surfactants were the ultimate non-toxic option.

Here’s what surfactants are used in Branch Basics products:

  • Coco Glucoside is used in Branch Basics Concentrate, an all-natural, non-toxic, Made-Safe, EWG-Verified, Cruelty-Free cleaning concentrate designed to replace every cleaning and laundry product in your home.
  • Decyl Glucoside in Branch Basics Concentrate, our Gel Hand Soap, and our plastic-free Dishwasher Tablets where it is used as a wetting, cleansing, and foaming agent and a stabilizer.
  • Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside is used in our Branch Basics  Gel Hand Soap as the most skin friendly glucoside with a pH of 5.5 - 6. It is non-drying and helps retain skin moisture even when used repeatedly. Caprylyl/Capryl glucoside helps prevent inflammation and itching.

That’s it!

Discover more about the ingredients in our products in our article Journey to Our New Formula. 

We hope this article has helped you understand the difference between synthetic and natural surfactants, and how they work.

Toss the Toxins With Branch Basics

Surfactants and natural surfactants may not be the most exciting topics.

However, given their widespread use and toxicity issues, we must become aware of and toss products with harmful chemicals in our personal care, baby care, cleaning, food, and laundry products.

If this article has inspired you to kick synthetic surfactants to the curb, we’re here to help!

Branch Basics Starter Kits (available in reusable plastic or glass) contain everything you need to replace every synthetic surfactant-laden cleaning and laundry product in your home with just one Concentrate.

We also offer Oxygen Boost, a mineral-based surfactant-free bleach alternative, laundry booster, stain remover, and scouring agent, and non-toxic plastic-free Dishwashing Tablets.

If you’re looking for more information to help you toss the toxins, head over to our Wellness Center for hundreds of articles, podcasts, and guides on everything natural cleaning, holistic nutrition, natural parenting, non-toxic building and home, and more. 

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.