With all the hype surrounding synthetic preservatives in beauty products, people have almost forgotten about another commonly excluded ingredient in natural-based goods – boosters and surfactants.
Surfactants, or SURFace ACTive agENTS cut through oil and grease, then suspend the extra grime so it can be easily rinsed away. They’re very effective for cleaning almost anything that needs to be – skin, hair, clothes, dishes, your car, and your pet – you name it. Surfactants and detergents also responsible for the foamy lather you notice in your cleaning products.
Most synthetically derived surfactants are ethoxylated, or use ethylene oxide with alcohols or phenols to dilute them and produce the surfactant. These can often be contaminated with dioxane, a well known carcinogen. They also tend to be extra drying and are known skin irritants. I’m sure you’ve heard of or read about 1,4-dioxane – it’s often listed at the top of ingredients to avoid in your beauty products. Unfortunately, this carcinogen isn’t listed since the FDA doesn’t require it to be. It’s often found in cleaning products, and alarmingly have been found in baby baths and children’s soaps.
There is a way you can tell if it may contain dioxane, however.
Ethoxylated surfactants end in –eth (like sodium lauETH sulfate) or contain the acronyms PPG (polypropylene glycol) or PEG (poly ethylene glycol). Other acronyms you’ll want to become familiar with are DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (monoethanolamine) and TEA (triethanoleamine). These three surfactants form the carcinogenic nitrosamines when interacting with other chemicals.
Surfactants such as sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate and cocamidopropyl betaine are derived from coconut oil, and as a result, some companies try to tout their ingredients as “natural-based”. Don’t be fooled! Obtaining one element of the coconut and mixing it with a chemical is a synthetic process, and its “natural roots” are not to be considered when you know the final result.
Other synthetic surfactants to avoid are ammonium laureth/lauryl sulfate, cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, and polysorbate 20.
In contrast,natural surfactants and boosters such as Castile Soap,Quillaja Saponaria Bark Extract,Horse Chestnet and Yucca Extract are safe,biodegradable and completely earth -friendly plants and shrubs that provide natural saponins via their extracts,seeds or fruit. These options are also vegan-friendly and can be grown organically for further safety.Soapnuts, or soapberries, are a popular product among eco-conscious consumers and are widely used as laundry detergent. Hot water interacts with the natural saponins of these plants to produce rich lather. Compounds and natural solutions like these make using unsafe, chemically-derived surfactants nearly obsolete to some people.
However, there are also a few safe synthetic surfactants and boosters. Sorbitan olivate and sodium hydroxypropylphosphate laurylglucoside crosspolymer are relatively newer surfactants that, while synthetic, are non-irritating, non-toxic and biodegradable. The latter of these two is even processed from sugar or corn.
Regardless of a surfactant’s natural or synthetic origins, using a safer one should be the main goal. Going completely natural is best, but if that’s not an option, feel secure in knowing that there are still a few safe synthetics that won’t harm you or the environment when used.
Jeanette Park is a freelance natural beauty writer and blogger who lives in Southern California. An advocate for green and natural beauty, Jean also sustains an eco-friendly lifestyle, and spends her free time dabbling in aromatherapy as well as making her own skin care masks. Visit her natural beauty blog at Garden of Beauty.