Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension of a liquid so it increases the contact between the liquid and another substance. Surfactants are sometimes referred to as “wetting agents”, but they can also act as detergents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, and dispersants. You’ve probably been using the most famous surfactant since you were a child – soap – which breaks the surface tension on your skin and permits water to get beneath the dirt and grease. But surfactants are found in many beauty products, not just soap. If you take a look at your shampoo and face wash, you’re likely to find surfactants in them as well.
The problem with many surfactants is that they not only get beneath the dirt and grease, they also strip the skin of its critical acid mantle. If your face has a dry uncomfortable feeling after cleansing, you may be feeling the effects of harsh surfactants! See why it’s important to understand a bit of chemistry?
The skin is our body’s largest organ – it has a surface area of around 2 square meters. Because our skin is exposed to so many potential dangers, e.g., pollution, second hand smoke, harsh chemicals, etc., it needs a strong defense to maintain our health. The first line of defense is the acid mantle our skin produces to protect itself. The acid mantle is a thin acidic film made up from sebum (or skin oil) and sweat (don’t say yuk – it’s part of your defense system!). Bacteria is repulsed by the acid mantle, so without it our skin becomes susceptible to rashes, breakouts and infections. This is where surfactants come into play.
Like we discussed, when surfactants get beneath the dirt and grease, they can also strip the skin of its acid mantle, causing skin to dry out and accelerating aging. Worse yet, without its mantle our skin is open to bacterial invasion. Often the strong surfactants contained in commercial soaps and detergents, including your facial cleanser, will strip the acid mantle and other protectants. Sulfates, have long been one of the most common surfactants used in hair and facial care to lift and cleanse the skin. The problem is that you are lifting off more then just dirt, makeup and sweat.
Steer Clear of Sulfates!
You do not need bubbles at all to cleanse your skin and hair! Gentle ingredients and many oils will dissolve makeup in a flash and leave your acid mantle barrier in tact! Many cleansers (expensive and discount alike) contain sulfates or other harsh surfactants. This type of surfactant is relatively stable and creates lots of foam. News flash: Foam may make us feel as though the cleanser is doing its job well, it’s not actually doing anything more than creating a cushion against our skin. Choose SULFATE-FREE and avoid other high foaming cleansers and shampoos. Bubbles can get you into trouble! Sure, while the skin of your body may be less of a concern, do you really want to strip your hair, making it dry, weak and lackluster? OR strip your skin and accelerate aging? Don’t think so! Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium ammonium sulfate (ALS), and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), are a few of the more common names, avoid them for sure but be on the lookout for that foam and steer clear!
News flash 2: Petroleum surfactants deplete our acid mantle! As an environmentally conscious consumer, you are probably also concerned with the depletion of a non-renewable resource as well as the environmental damage done by release of petroleum products into our rivers, lakes and oceans. So, if a product contains a petroleum surfactant to increase a non-cleansing result – foaminess – that harms our skin and the ultimately the environment, why include it at all?
We’ve learned a little chemistry and mixed in a little biology. We know that surfactants are used for various purposes, but we also know that some are too harsh for our skin, especially suflates and petroleum surfactants. So what should we do? Continue to read labels and run, run, run away from products with petroleum surfactants. Seek natural cleansers that use gentle fruit based botanicals instead of harsh surfactants from responsible manufacturers that are transparent about their ingredients and manufacturing processes. Avoid the bubbles for radiant skin and hair!