AskDefine | Define surfactant

Dictionary Definition

surfactant n : a substance capable of reducing the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved [syn: wetting agent, wetter, surface-active agent]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a surface active agent, or wetting agent, capable of reducing the surface tension of a liquid; typically organic compounds having a hydrophilic "head" and a hydrophobic "tail"
  2. a lipoprotein in the tissues of the lung that reduces surface tension and permits more efficient gas transport


Extensive Definition

Surfactants are wetting agents that lower the surface tension of a liquid, allowing easier spreading, and lower the interfacial tension between two liquids.


The term 'surfactant' is a blend of "surface acting agent". Surfactants are usually organic compounds that are amphiphilic, meaning they contain both hydrophobic groups (their "tails") and hydrophilic groups (their "heads"). Therefore, they are soluble in both organic solvents and water. The term surfactant was coined by Antara Products in 1950.
In Index Medicus and the United States National Library of Medicine, "surfactant" is reserved for the meaning pulmonary surfactant (see "alveoli" link below). For the more general meaning, "surface active agent" is the heading.
The most common biological example of surfactant is that coating the surfaces of the Alveoli, the small air sacs of the lungs that serve as the site of gas exchange.

Operation and effects

Surfactants reduce the surface tension of water by adsorbing at the liquid-gas interface. They also reduce the interfacial tension between oil and water by adsorbing at the liquid-liquid interface. Many surfactants can also assemble in the bulk solution into aggregates. Examples of such aggregates are vesicles and micelles. The concentration at which surfactants begin to form micelles is known as the critical micelle concentration or CMC. When micelles form in water, their tails form a core that can encapsulate an oil droplet, and their (ionic/polar) heads form an outer shell that maintains favorable contact with water. When surfactants assemble in oil, the aggregate is referred to as a reverse micelle. In a reverse micelle, the heads are in the core and the tails maintain favorable contact with oil. Surfactants are also often classified into four primary groups; anionic, cationic, non-ionic, and zwitterionic (dual charge).
Thermodynamics of the surfactant systems are of great importance, theoretically and practically. This is because surfactant systems represent systems between ordered and disordered states of matter. Surfactant solutions may contain an ordered phase (micelles) and a disordered phase (free surfactant molecules and/or ions in the solution).
Ordinary washing up (dishwashing) detergent, for example, will promote water penetration in soil, but the effect would only last a few days (although many standard laundry detergent powders contain levels of chemicals such as sodium and boron, which can be damaging to plants, so these should not be applied to soils). Commercial soil wetting agents will continue to work for a considerable period, but they will eventually be degraded by soil micro-organisms. Some can, however, interfere with the life-cycles of some aquatic organisms, so care should be taken to prevent run-off of these products into streams, and excess product should not be washed down gutters.

Applications and sources

Surfactants play an important role in many practical applications and products, including:
Surfactants are also naturally secreted by type II cells of the lung alveoli in mammals.


A surfactant can be classified by the presence of formally charged groups in its head. A non-ionic surfactant has no charge groups in its head. The head of an ionic surfactant carries a net charge. If the charge is negative, the surfactant is more specifically called anionic; if the charge is positive, it is called cationic. If a surfactant contains a head with two oppositely charged groups, it is termed zwitterionic.
Some commonly encountered surfactants of each type include:

Health and Environmental Controversy

Some surfactants are known to be toxic to animals, ecosystems and humans, and can increase the diffusion of other environmental contaminants . Despite this, they are routinely deposited in numerous ways on land and into water systems, whether as part of an intended process or as industrial and household waste.

See also

surfactant in Czech: Tenzidy
surfactant in Hebrew: חפ"ש
surfactant in German: Tenside
surfactant in Spanish: Tensoactivo
surfactant in French: Tensioactif
surfactant in Italian: Tensioattivo
surfactant in Dutch: Oppervlakte-actieve stof
surfactant in Japanese: 界面活性剤
surfactant in Polish: Surfaktant
surfactant in Portuguese: Tensoativo
surfactant in Russian: Поверхностно-активные вещества
surfactant in Swedish: Surfaktant
surfactant in Turkish: Yüzey aktif madde
surfactant in Vietnamese: Chất hoạt hóa bề mặt
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