From Academic Kids

Surfactants, also known as wetting agents, lower the surface tension of a liquid, allowing easier spreading, and the interfacial tension between two liquids. The term surfactant is a contraction of "Surface active agent". Surfactants are usually organic compounds that are amphipathic, meaning they contain both hydrophobic groups (their "tails") and hydrophilic groups (their "heads"). Therefore, they are typically sparingly soluble in both organic solvents and water. Surfactants reduce the surface tension of water by adsorbing at the air-water 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 that are known as 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 is like an oil droplet, and their heads form an outer shell, or corona, 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.

In Index Medicus and the National Library of Medicine (NLM, USA Dept. of Health and Human Services), "surfactant" is reserved for the meaning pulmonary surfactant (see "alveoli" link below). For the more general meaning, "surface active agent" is the heading.

Surfactants play an important role in many practical applications and products, including:

A surfactant can be classified by the presence or absence of formally charged groups in its head. A nonionic 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:

  • Ionic
    • Anionic
    • Cationic
      • Cetyl trimethylammonium bromide (CTAB) and other alkyltrimethylammonium salts
      • Cetyl pyridinium chloride
      • polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA)
  • Nonionic
    • Alkyl poly(ethylene oxide)
    • Alkyl polyglucosides, including:
      • Octyl glucoside
      • Decyl maltoside
  • Zwitterionic

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