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Shampoo Surfactants: The Ultimate Clean-Up Crew

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Image of the back of a curly girl's hair with shampoo in it.

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Have you ever marveled at how your curls bounce back to life after a good shampoo? The secret lies in the remarkable shampoo surfactants – the little-known champions of hair care. These powerhouse ingredients work tirelessly to rid your locks of dirt, oil, and impurities, leaving them fresh, vibrant, and utterly gorgeous.

Surfactants, also known as “Surface Active Agents,” are clever chemical compounds that play a pivotal role in cleansing, whether it’s your laundry, skin, or, most importantly, your hair. Picture them as your hair’s diligent clean-up crew, adept at breaking down and whisking away dirt and oil, all while maintaining the gentle touch your curls deserve.

In this article, we’ll delve into the world of surfactants in hair-cleansing products, focusing on shampoos. We’ll uncover the roles of anionic and non-ionic surfactants and how they enhance the health of curly hair. Additionally, we’ll explore innovative research on surfactant combinations for a gentle yet effective cleansing experience. Prepare to discover the science behind your hair care routine, guided by a seasoned hair scientist and cosmetic formulator with a PhD in Chemistry.

Understanding Shampoo Surfactants

Image of the foam from a shampoo.

Surfactants, also known as ‘Surface Active Agents,’ are vital chemical compounds that aid in cleaning various surfaces during washing, including laundry, hair, and skin. Water, being a polar universal solvent, naturally dissolves many substances like dirt and debris. However, it encounters challenges when interacting with materials such as hair and skin due to surface tension, a force that restricts water penetration.

These surfactants play a crucial role in overcoming this obstacle by reducing water’s surface tension, thus enhancing its ability to penetrate and remove impurities effectively. Additionally, surfactants function as emulsifiers, enabling them to lift and eliminate grease and debris from surfaces, which can be rinsed away with water.1,2,3

Shampoo heavily relies on surfactants to thoroughly clean by removing sebum, oils, debris, and product build-up from the hair shaft. Shampoos would lack the necessary cleansing power to accomplish these tasks effectively without surfactants.

Understanding Frequently Used Shampoo Surfactants

Shampoo formulations typically rely on anionic or non-ionic surfactants to achieve cleansing, foaming, conditioning, and aesthetic properties. These surfactants work together in combinations of two to three to deliver the desired hair care benefits.

Anionic Surfactants

Anionic surfactants, such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), are the most common in shampoos. They carry a negative charge in their structure, enabling effective cleaning and lather formation, all while remaining cost-effective. Anionic surfactants are widely utilized for their robust cleaning properties and affordability.4,5

Commonly used surfactants:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS, Anionic)
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES, Anionic)
  • Sodium Coco-Sulfate (Anionic)
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (Anionic)
  • Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (Anionic)
  • Sodium Lauroyl Sulfoacetate (Anionic)
  • Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate (Anionic)
  • Sodium Lauroyl Glutamate (Anionic)

Non-Ionic Surfactants

In contrast, non-ionic surfactants like Coco Glucoside and Decyl Glucoside lack a charge density. While they produce moderate to low foam, these surfactants offer excellent cleansing abilities and are gentler on the skin, making them suitable for sensitive scalps.6

Common Non-Ionic Surfactants:

  • Coco Glucoside
  • Decyl Glucoside
  • Lauryl Glucoside

Amphoteric Surfactants

Another category, amphoteric surfactants, contributes to shampoo formulations by enhancing foam production and maintaining product viscosity.

Examples include:

  • Cocoamidopropyl Betaine (CAPB)
  • Coco Betaine
  • Cocoamphoacetate Sodium

Decoding Shampoo Formulation: Surfactants & Co-Surfactants

When crafting shampoo formulations, a blend of two to three surfactants is typically employed. The primary surfactant, present in significant quantities, forms the backbone of the product, delivering primary cleansing and foaming capabilities.

Complementing the main surfactant are co-surfactants, added in smaller proportions to enhance cleansing and foaming properties and elevate the shampoo’s overall efficacy.

The inclusion of a co-surfactant alongside the primary surfactant diminishes the critical micelle concentration, amplifying the product’s cleansing prowess and foaming potential.

Collectively, these surfactants synergize to effectively eliminate oil, fatty residues, debris, and impurities from the hair, ensuring thorough cleansing and desirable aesthetic attributes.

While Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) often serves as the primary surfactant in the listed ingredients, its singular usage may fall short of achieving desired cleansing, foaming, and foam stability.

To bolster these properties, a co-surfactant known as Cocamidopropyl betaine (CAPB) is introduced. This addition significantly enhances the shampoo’s cleansing efficacy, flash foam generation, and foam stability.

Vilifying a Single Surfactant 

Shampoo formulations are typically a blend of two or more surfactants, carefully arranged in specific proportions. Rarely does a shampoo contain just a single surfactant, as the combination of diverse surfactants from varying chemical groups influences formula compatibility with the skin, reducing the likelihood of irritation.

That said, it is important to note that blaming a single surfactant for any negative consequences or outcomes is inaccurate. A product’s quality should not be determined by just one or two ingredients but by the overall formulation.

Lately, there has been a tendency to unfairly criticize a single ingredient, which is not a scientific approach. People have been criticizing one ingredient without considering the science.

One example is the debate surrounding the sulfate surfactants SLES or SLS and their potential to irritate. No one uses these chemicals directly on their hair, but they are integrated into a formulation alongside other surfactants and ingredients.

While SLS and SLES are known for their harshness and potential for irritation, the presence of additional ingredients in the formulation, such as co-surfactants or conditioning agents, can mitigate their effects, resulting in a more skin-friendly product.

Numerous shampoos and facial cleansers on the market contain SLS and SLES yet boast mild, gentle formulas. Furthermore, SLS is commonly found in oral hygiene products.7 Thus, singling out a single ingredient is not an appropriate approach. Instead, it’s advisable to experiment with different products to discover the ones best suited to your hair’s unique needs.

Remember, let your hair be your ultimate guide!


Surfactants form the backbone of hair shampoo, facilitating cleansing, lather formation, and dirt removal. Typically, shampoos comprise a blend of anionic, non-ionic, and amphoteric surfactants meticulously combined in specific proportions.

It’s essential to recognize that a shampoo’s efficacy isn’t solely determined by any single surfactant. Rather, it’s the synergy of all ingredients that renders a shampoo effective. Therefore, condemning or vilifying a particular ingredient in isolation lacks a scientific basis.

The most effective approach to discovering suitable hair care products is through experimentation. Select shampoos containing ingredients tailored to your hair’s needs and allow your hair to serve as the ultimate judge.

I trust that I’ve clarified some of the misconceptions surrounding shampoo surfactants. Should you have any further queries, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments section below!


  1. Myers, D., Surfactant Science and Technology. Wiley: 2020. ↩︎
  2. Surfactants in action. In Chemical Formulation: An Overview of Surfactant-Based Preparations Used in Everyday Life, Hargreaves, T., Ed. The Royal Society of Chemistry: 2003; pp 48-88. ↩︎
  3. Rieger, M.; Rhein, L. D., Surfactants in Cosmetics, Second Edition. Taylor & Francis: 1997. ↩︎
  4. Lai, K. Y., Liquid Detergents. CRC Press: 2005. ↩︎
  5. Mottram, F. J., Hair shampoos. In Poucher’s Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps, Butler, H., Ed. Springer Netherlands: 1993; pp 170-194. ↩︎
  6. Friedli, F., Detergency of Specialty Surfactants. Taylor & Francis: 2001. ↩︎
  7. Turkoglu, M.; Pekmezci, E.; Sakr, A., Evaluation of irritation potential of surfactant mixtures. Inter. J. of Cosmet. Sci 1999, 21 (6), 371-382 ↩︎


I’m just a girl who transformed her severely damaged hair into healthy hair. I adore the simplicity of a simple hair care routine, the richness of diverse textures, and the joy of sharing my journey from the comfort of my space.

My mission? To empower others with the tools to restore, and maintain healthy hair, and celebrate the hair they were born with!

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