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General information on surfactants

A surfactant is a compound that modifies the surface tension between two surfaces. By lowering the surface tension of water, it allows the water to wet the surface (otherwise the water will slip).

Surfactant compounds are amphiphilic molecules, meaning that they have two parts of different polarity, one lipophilic (which retains fats) and apolar, the other hydrophilic (miscible in water) and polar.

When they come into contact with water, the surfactants that foam, wash and emulsify work to loosen the grease deposited on the hair's surface.

The more they foam, the more dirt is dispersed and the greater the action.

Surfactants are therefore washing or detergent agents, depending on the product used.

The 4 main types of surfactant

There are four types of surfactant compounds, grouped according to the nature of the hydrophilic part :

  1. Anionic surfactants: the hydrophilic part is negatively charged.
  2. Cationic surfactants: the hydrophilic part is positively charged.
  3. Zwitterionic or amphoteric surfactants: the hydrophilic part has a positive and a negative charge, the overall charge is zero.
  4. Non-ionic surfactants: the molecule has no net charge.

Anionic surfactants

These are the most common surfactants used in hand-held products. They are mainly found in cosmetics such as soap, shampoo and shower gel. They have strong foaming and emulsifying properties, but their effectiveness decreases if the water is hard.

Examples include ammonium lauryl sulphate, ammonium laureth sulphate, sodium laureth sulphate (irritating, sensitising and drying) and sodium lauryl sulphate (the most aggressive). Ammonium lauryl sulphate is one of the least aggressive washing bases (not to be confused with ammonium laureth sulphate).

Ammonium lauryl sulfate

The ammonium lauryl sulphate found in these cosmetics is made from coconut oil, without petrochemical solvents. It is authorised by the Ecocert Organic Cosmetics standard.

This oil contains 3 main fatty acids: lauric acid (C12H24O2), myristic acid (C14H28O2) and palmitic acid (C16H30O2).

The chemical composition of coconut oil is remarkable for its high level of short-chain fatty acids and low level of unsaturation. This naturally gives it a high saponification value.

Sulphur neutralised by ammonium is incorporated into this mixture of fatty acids to create a product composed of ammonium lauryl (C12H29NO4S ) , myristic (C14H33NO4S) , palmitic (C16H37NO4S) sulphate.

Although Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS) is classified as an irritant (Xi) in its pure form, it does not present a significant risk to the user as it is not intended to be left on the skin (shower gels or shampoos containing it are normally rinsed off).

In a report published in 1983 on the monitoring of cosmetic ingredients, 6 complaints were noted out of 6.8 million shampoos sold, with a maximum concentration of 31% ALS: 2 itching of the scalp, 2 allergic reactions, 1 damaged hair, 1 eye irritation).

This report concluded that cosmetics containing SLA should be used discontinuously, for short periods and followed by rinsing. Otherwise, the concentration of SLA should not exceed 1%.

A study carried out by The Human and Environmental Risk Assessment (HERA) on alkyl sulphates, which is also applicable to SLA, found possible skin and eye irritation. This irritation depended on the concentration of SLA.

After a two-year study on rats, HERA found that ammonium lauryl sulphate is not carcinogenic when applied to the skin.