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Ingredient: Surfactant

Do you know what is the most common ingredient in your skincare? Surfactants! From your cleansers to moisturizers and your makeup products, surfactants are present in most of your cosmetics and personal care products.

What Are Surfactants?

Surfactants are one of many different compounds that make up a detergent that removes dirt, product buildup, and pollutants. Their job is to break down the interface between water and oils and/or dirt. They actually hold the buildup or dirt in suspension to allow for removal through rinsing.

How Are Surfactants Made?

Synthetic surfactants are mostly manufactured using starting materials (reactants used in chemical reactions) such as petrochemicals. These further undergo chemical reactions such as sulfonation (addition of sulphur) or ethoxylation (addition of ethylene oxide). Being synthetic in nature, they can be designed or mixed with other chemicals to serve their desired purposes.

However, there is also a range of biosurfactants that have great advantages as an eco-friendly alternative to synthetic surfactants. These are chemicals produced by microorganisms but have clearly defined hydrophilic and hydrophobic groups. Biosurfactants occur in nature. Fungi, bacteria, and yeast are known for producing biosurfactants. They can also be derived from plant-based sources such as coconut and palm oil.

What are they used for in skincare?

In cosmetics, surfactants are used for cleansing, foaming, thickening, emulsifying, solubilizing, penetration enhancement, antimicrobial effects, and other special effects. The key property of surfactant molecules that makes them useful cosmetic ingredients is that they are compatible with both water and oil.

Surfactants For Your Skin

Not only do they form a large group of ingredients, but are also used in combination with other surfactants and various other ingredients. The interaction between all the ingredients brings out the final effect of the surfactants on your skin.

There are surfactants that should be avoided in skin care such as SLS or SLES (Sodium laureth ether sulfate). Harsh surfactants can strip your skin of its natural moisture and hasten your skin’s aging process. Another group of surfactants like PEG (polyethylene glycol), which penetrate deep into the skin, can act as carriers for potential carcinogens (cancer-causing).

However, there are also natural surfactants, which are derived from plant sources, that are relatively safer to use. They undergo a certain degree of chemical processing in order for them to be suitable for use in cosmetics. Some natural surfactants are potassium cocoate (derived from coconut oil), decyl glucoside (from corn and coconuts), sucrose cocoate (from sugar beets), etc.

Why I chose to use them

Simply speaking, pH balance.

Handmade soaps have a pH between 9 and 10. It is impossible for a handmade soap to fall near neutral or below without using an emulsifier to keep the soap molecules within the solution. Even if we wash our skin with tap water, which is having typical pH between 6 and 8.5, and no soap or cleanser at all, the pH of top layer of our skin will slightly increase immediately after.

Skin maintains its barrier best around 5.5—slightly acidic. At the ideal pH (5.5), the skin is able to maintain a good barrier and, together with natural oils, moisturizers and bacteria, function as a true protective defense organ. This collection of factors creating this shield is called the “acid mantle.”

The face has demonstrated to be the most common site of skin sensitivity (Table 3), predictable physiologically due to the larger and multiple number of products used on the face (particularly in women), a thinner barrier in facial skin, and a greater density of nerve endings

A cleanser that is “pH balanced” simply means it has a pH similar to that of skin (4.5-5.5). Generally speaking, 5.5 is a good number to aim for and doesn't interfere with skin microflora like alkaline soaps do.

In formulating face washes I need the ability to maintain a healthy ph which can only be accomplished with surfactants. With this in mind, I have chose surfactants like decyl glucoside, coco glucoside, and caprylyl capryl glucoside, which are naturally derived from raw materials such as coconuts and corn sugar. In using these surfactants, I hope to formulate a face wash that is cleansing, maintains moisture and is pH balanced.

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