Surfactant vs. Detergent: What's the Difference? | Branch Basics

By Branch Basics |

Surfactant vs. Detergent: What's the Difference? | Branch Basics

If you’ve landed here, chances are you’re researching surfactants and detergents and wondering about their differences.

In this article, we’ll compare surfactants and detergents and discuss the best non-toxic surfactants for healthy living and DIY projects.

Surfactant vs. Detergents: Key Differences 

What is the difference between surfactants and detergents?

The answer is slightly complicated, but we promise you can grasp this!

Surfactants are a type of detergent that lowers the surface tension of water and liquids, allowing them to disperse and clean dirt, grime, grease, and messes.

Examples of surfactants include natural soap, coco glucoside, and sodium lauryl sulfate.

Surfactants are a primary component of detergents (such as laundry or dish detergents) but may also be used in other products, such as skin care, body care, and industrial products. Natural soap is also a type of surfactant.

So surfactants are a type of detergent and a primary ingredient in detergent formulas.

As you just learned, detergents are surfactants, but they are also blends or formulas of one, or several surfactants and other ingredients, such as enzymes, oxygen bleach, etc., used for various cleaning and laundering purposes. 

Their primary purpose is to break down dirt, grime, and stains.

We’re all familiar with specific brands of laundry detergents, for example, that contain several ingredients such as surfactants, optical brighteners, bleach, preservatives, boosters, washing aids, enzymes, dyes, water softeners, fragrances, etc.

Bottom line: Surfactants are a type of detergent and a primary ingredient used in detergent formulas to reduce the surface tension of water.

Detergents are surfactants and are also combinations of surfactants and other ingredients used to break down dirt, grime, grease, and stains.

What are Surfactants Used For?

Surfactants are used in a wide range of products, from personal care and cleaning to laundry detergents and industrial applications.

As previously discussed, they work by reducing the surface tension of water, which makes it easier for cleaners to mix with and remove dirt, grease, grime, and other contaminants. 

Surfactants also act as:

  • Emulsifiers (allow different ingredients to mix)
  • Foaming agents
  • Thickeners
  • Conditioners
  • Moisturizers
  • Anti-static compounds
  • Wetting agents

Surfactants are used in detergents and a wide range of products, such as:

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

Get more history and the details on how surfactants work in: Are Surfactants Toxic? The Dangers And Alternatives.

Are Surfactants Toxic? 

Some synthetic surfactants are highly toxic, and some, including natural soaps, natural and certain synthetic surfactants, and some naturally derived synthetic surfactants, are not.

For example, anionic surfactants include a group of surfactants that contain PFASs, also known as "forever chemicals."

These are typically not disclosed on ingredient lists but may be found in makeup and other stain-resistant, water-repellent, and non-stick formulas.

Fortunately, public awareness of the health and environmental dangers of PFAS chemicals (which are becoming a real problem in drinking water supplies) is growing, and consumers are demanding disclosure. 

For more information on the dangers of forever chemicals, we highly recommend reading: How to Identify and Avoid Teflon and Other PFAS.

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

What are Detergents Used For? 

Detergents are used in dishwashing and laundry products as well as shampoos, shaving creams and foams, and body care products.

Are Detergents Toxic?

As discussed in How To Toss Your Toxic Laundry Detergent, and Why Non-Toxic Dishwashing Matters, synthetic detergent formulas can be very toxic if they contain ingredients like bleach, anionic surfactants, phosphates, phenols, dioxin 1-4, synthetic preservatives, formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, optical brighteners, and other synthetic chemicals.

Fortunately, there are excellent alternatives, like Branch Basics Laundry and Dishwashing Tablets that combine naturally derived surfactants with other non-toxic ingredients to create effective human- and eco-safe detergents.

Learn more in: 9 Natural Laundry Detergent Alternatives That Actually Work.

Natural Surfactants in Branch Basics

We have tried and tested many natural surfactants and natural soaps on our journey to formulate Branch Basics products.

Initially, we insisted on 100% natural, unrefined, botanical surfactants like quillaja, soapbark, soapwort, and soapberry.

However, we quickly realized these did not provide the cleaning, foaming, and degreasing power required for an all-purpose and versatile Concentrate.

Natural soaps were a dead-end, too, because of issues with eye and lung irritation and soap scum residues.

Fortunately, we found the alkyl glucoside family of naturally derived surfactants were ideal for creating a super-powerful, non-toxic concentrate.

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 soap scum, are environmentally friendly, and could be sourced from non-GMO plants.

These include:

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

Learn more about these non-toxic surfactants by clicking the links above, and discover more about non-toxic non-surfactant ingredients in:

Get Ready to Toss the Toxins 

We hope this article has empowered you with the information you need on the difference between surfactants vs. detergents, what they’re used for, toxicity issues, and natural alternatives.

If you’re interested in trying a non-toxic, natural, and time-saving approach to cleaning, we invite you to check out Branch Basics whole house cleaning and laundry system.

Here’s how it works.

When you order a Branch Basics Premium Starter Kit (available in reusable plastic or glass) you’ll receive our Concentrate, Oxygen Boost (a bleach alternative, laundry booster, stain remover, soaking aid, and natural scouring agent), and five empty bottles to make your own All-Purpose, Bathroom, Streak-Free, Laundry, and Foaming Wash.

This gives you everything you need to replace every single cleaner and laundry product in your home (even stain removers, bleach, hand soap, carpet cleaner, floor cleaner, pet wash, produce wash, laundry boosters, and so much more).

Talk about simple!

Once you receive your products, simply follow the instructions to mix the Concentrate with water (see a video demonstration here) in the various bottles to create your All-Purpose, Bathroom, Streak-Free, Laundry, and Foaming Wash.

One bottle of Concentrate makes

  • 3 Bottles of All-Purpose
  • 3 Bottles of Bathroom
  • 3 Streak-Free
  • 64 loads of laundry
  • 3 Foaming Wash

We also have instructions in our User Guide for using Concentrate making custom floor cleaner dilutions, for use in carpet cleaners, washing your car, and dozens of other uses.

Get your Branch Basics Starter Kit here and begin your journey to a healthier home today.