What are surfactants?

Surfactants or “surface-active agents” are molecules with a hydrophilic (water-loving) and a hydrophobic (water-fearing or oil-loving) part. Due to their unique makeup, they can bind both oil and water together allowing for cleaning, emulsifying and even conditioning. In fact, the emulsifiers that we regularly use in creams & lotions are a type of surfactant.

Surfactants are divided according to the ion, leading to the categories: anionic, non-ionic, cationic and amphoteric. These groups determine how and what a surfactant can be used for. It’s common to mix surfactants from different groups in order to boost their properties, many cleansers have a primary surfactant and a secondary surfactant to enhance cleansing abilities. However, in this recipe, we’ll only use one surfactant: decyl glucoside.

Decyl Glucoside

Decyl glucoside is a mild, natural surfactant made from corn, coconuts and sugar. It belongs to the non-ionic group of surfactants that are milder than anionic surfactants (FYI harsher cleansers like “sulfates” are anionic surfactants). Due to this, decyl glucoside is a common choice to use in both baby products and cleansers geared towards sensitive skin.

Decyl glucoside benefits:

  • Gentle on skin, making our face cleanser suitable for everyday use, as well as for those with sensitive or acne prone skin
  • Produces excellent foam: decyl glucoside has one of the best foaming capabilities of the natural surfactants that can boosts the effects of our face cleanser
  • Emulsifying abilities: we can add fragrance by dispersing a small amount of oil (essential oils) in our face cleanser thanks to the surfactant
  • Plant-based and biodegradable

Combining surfactants

Natural surfactants or “surface-active agents” can combine both water and oil particles and as a result make great cleaning agents. The type and amount of surfactants used will directly affect the harshness or strength of the cream body wash.

There are four types of surfactants: Anionic, Cationic, Non-ionic, Amphoteric. These types represent the “charge” of the surfactant that determines it’s properties and how it interacts with your formula. By combining surfactants from different groups you can improve the performance of your cleanser.

Decyl glucoside is mild non-ionic and can be mixed with Cocobetaine (Cocamidopropyl betaine) which is amphoteric (surfactants that can change their charge depending on the pH). By itself, cocobetaine isn’t very effective as a cleansing agent but when used with other surfactants, it can boost foaming, conditioning and reduce irritation of other surfactants. It’s what’s known as a secondary surfactant, they work best when used to boost the abilities of other surfactants. Including secondary surfactants aren’t essential but they can help to provide a deeper more effective cleanser, without the need to use harsher surfactants like sulfates.