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Cosmetics Ingredients
The material selection platform
Cosmetics Ingredients

Cleansers 101 - Selecting the Right Surfactant

Cleansing agents remove contaminants from a substrate, be it hair or skin. Cleansers used in cosmetic products are based on surfactant chemistry and their structural properties for shaping the delivery and user experience of the product. But selecting the right type of surfactant for a particular application is a challenging. Here’s a solution to all your problems. Find here, different classes of surfactants available in the market along with their chemistry and thus, learn to select the right product depending on your requirement. Also, find out some unique formulation examples of surfactants / cleansers in hair and facial care.


Role of Surfactants in Cosmetics

Role of Surfactants in Cosmetics

In cosmetics and personal care products, surfactants are cleansing and foam-forming agents. They form the base of almost all cleansing products available. They mix with water and fat of the skin to remove dirt. The term "surfactant" is broadly used to denote surface activity and is noted for its ability to reduce the surface tension between two phases. In general, surfactants may act as :

  • Detergents
  • Wetting agents
  • Emulsifiers
  • Foaming agents, and
  • Dispersants

The lipophilic chain is attracted by the soil and penetrates in it, while the surfactant forces the soil to an open surface area and then detach from the surface.

How Do Surfactants Work?

How Do Surfactants Work?

A key to utilizing surfactant's unique properties lies in understanding how and when to use them.

Fundamentals of a Surfactant

Surfactants in cosmetic personal care formulas can be easily incorporated, but this requires skillful execution of surfactant-related processes. Surfactant molecules rest at a water interface, forming a thermodynamically stable system that prevents polar and non-polar solvents from contacting each other. Thermodynamically stable systems primarily include: micelles, lamellae, microemulsions, emulsions, and liquid crystals.

Polar and non-polar components of a surfactant provide varying affinity that allows a surfactant to attract to specific solvents.

Non-polar components are hydrophobic and typically insoluble in water - can be linear or branched alkyl or alkyl and aromatic, sulfuric, nitrogenic, phosphoric, alkoxylate groups combined.

Polar components are hydrophilic; this region determines a surfactant's classification: nonionic (polyalkoxylate, glucose, sucrose, amine oxide), anionic (sulfate, sulfonate, carboxylate, phosphate), cationic (alkylammonium salts), or zwitterionic (which contains both anionic and cationic groups).

  • Anionic surfactants are incorporated for their surface activity (negative charge polar head groups like carboxylic acid, sulfates, sulfonic acids, and phosphoric acid derivatives)

  • Cationic surfactants are incorporated for their electrostatic attractive properties to skin and hair, and substantivity (positive charge polar head groups like amines, alkylimidazolines, alkoxylated amines, quaternary ammonium)

  • Non-ionic surfactants are incorporated as emulsifiers, conditioning agents, and solubilizers/coupling agent (no charge and represented by alkylene oxides, polyglucosides, fatty alcohols, ethanolamines, dimethylamine oxides)

  • Amphoteric surfactants are incorporated as secondary surfactants to help boost foam, improve conditioning, and reduce irritation (zwitterionic with positive and negative depending on the pH of the environment)

Surfactant Classification

Surfactant Classification

There are many options to creating surfactancy and delivering different property benefits; such as low/high foaming, non-residue/residue deposition, viscosity/rheology modulation. Generally, there is required a synergist balance within chemistry and classification to achieve targeted physical and sensorial properties. For the most part, most surfactants provide, at least, adequate levels of surfactancy.

Check out the different surfactant types below to know the properties they impart when added to a cosmetic formulation.

Functionality Matrix of Anionic Surfactants

Anionic Surfactants Chemistry
Classification & Examples
Benefits Weaknesses 
  • Ether sulfates have better solubilitythan un-ethoxylated counterparts
  • Sacrifice some foaming characteristics and surfactancy
  • Can be irritating if left on the skin
  • Less irritating than sulfates
  • work well in soft and hard water; less effective in hard water at low pH's)
  • Compatible with cationics
  • Higher degree of utilization due to negative emotive issues with sulfates and improving economics
  • Stable in aqueous systems
  • Susceptible to hydrolysis
  • Leaves a dry feel to skin
  • Good foaming, especially in acid pH
  • Has the potential to reduce irritation values of a surfactant system
  • Susceptible to hydrolysis
  • Poor foamer
  • Could cause minimal irritation and minimal damage to cuticle
View All Anionic Surfactants Available Today >>

Functionality Matrix of Cationic Surfactants

Cationic Surfactants Chemistry
Classification & Examples Benefits Weaknesses 
  • Alkylamines
  • Alkoxylated amines
  • Amine Oxides
  • Alkanolamides
  • Amphoterics (e.g., Alkylamido alkylamines)
  • Good for acidic systems - provide good conditioning properties
  • Good foam boosters
  • Stable in amphiphilics
  • Reduce irritation of sulfate systems
  • Foam boosters
  • Improved substantive conditioning
  • Contribute an amine odor to the formula
  • Potential irritants
  • Under-utilized because of poor purity in the past
 Alkylammonium salts
  • Alkyltrimethylammonium salts: cetyl trimethylammonium bromide (CTAB)
  • Cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC)
  • Benzalkonium chloride (BAC)
  • Benzethonium chloride (BZT)
  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Dimethyldioctadecyl ammonium chloride
  • Cetrimonium bromide Dioctadecyldimethyl ammonium bromide
  • Good for acidic systems- good conditioning properties.
  • Good foam boosters
  • Stable in amphiphilics
  • Reduce irritation of sulfate systems
  • Used for their foam boosting properties
  • Increase viscosity
  • Can be used in low pH systems
  • Reduce irritation value of anionics
  • Foam booster with improved substantive conditioning
  • Have been under-utilized because of poor purity 
View All Cationic Surfactants Available Today >>

Functionality Matrix of Non-ionic Surfactants

Non-ionic Surfactant Chemistry
Alkoxylated alcohols (Ethers)
Random copolymers:
  • Propoxylated
  • Ethoxylated
  • Produce extensive foam
  • Are mild
  • Leave a substrate soft and smooth to the touch
Esters & Glucosides
  • Sorbitan esters
  • Alkyl glucoside
  • Limited surfactancy but good conditioning properties
  • Good hydrophobe
  • When ethoxylated, yield very good coupling agents and mild conditioning agents
  • Mild conditioning, co-emulsification, and thickening
  • Good foamers, good detergency, diverse compatibility

  • Poor stability in highly acidic mediums
Glucose, Sucrose, Amine Oxide
  • Cocamide MEA, Cocamide DEA
  • Dodecyldimethylamine oxide
View All Non-ionic Surfactants Available Today > >

Functionality Matrix of Zwitterionic Surfactants

Zwitterionic Surfactant Chemistry
Classification Example
  • Sodium dodecyl sulfate (anionic)
  • Benzalkonium chloride (cationic), Cocamidopropyl betaine (zwitterionic)
  • Phospholipids
  • Sodium dodecyl sulfate (anionic)
  • Benzalkonium chloride (cationic), Cocamidopropyl betaine (zwitterionic)
  • Phospholipids
  • Cholesterol
  • glycolipids
  • Behenamidopropyl Betaine
  • Betaine
  • Coco-Betaine
  • Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine
  • Coco-Sultaine
View All Amphoteric Surfactants Available Today > >

Surfactants Selection Made Easy

Surfactants Selection Made Easy

The selection of the right surfactant system is difficult because of the diversity of options. When deciding upon a system:
  1. Consider the interaction of ingredients and how a surfactant-based cleansing system will be positioned in the marketplace

  2. Chose the raw material manufacturers because they might employ different processes:
    1. There is always a concern - as relates to manufacturer variations - regarding the quality and performance of ingredients
    2. There can be variances in the consistency of ingredients from batch to batch and lot-to-lot
    3. Surfactant specifications are critical to ensuring viscosity control, color, odor, pH, salt content, and foaming/cleansing characteristics

Selecting the Right Surfactant

The general mechanism of surfactant is similar - care should be taken, understanding why a surfactant is used and how to determine the selection of the right combination of surfactants is important. Everyday functional uses of surfactants include:
  1. Detergency to remove soil - e.g., in shampoos and soap

  2. Wetting to improve the contact angle between a solution and a substrate - e.g., in the coloring of hair and applications of permanent wave lotions

  3. Foaming for appearance - e.g., in shampoos, bubble bath, and laundry detergents

  4. Emulsification to form a stable mixture of two incompatible phases to include oil-in-water, water-in-oil, multiple phases, clear micro, alcoholic, nano-, and refractive index matching - e.g., in skin and hair creams and lotions

  5. Solubilization of insoluble components such that they are compatible in an incompatible system - e.g., in perfumes and flavors

Get Inspired: Learn to avoid instability issues in your cosmetic emulsions (o/w, w/o, blends…) by efficiently selecting and adapting your surfactant / emulsifier system for the current natural market needs. Take the course Emulsifiers & Surfactant Selection for Stable Cosmetics today! > >

Practical Aspect on Surfactant Chemistry

Analyzing the Performance Properties of CleansersAn important step in developing a cleansing-type product is to consider how surfactants will be incorporated into them to optimize performance and processing. The main performance properties of cleansers are:

  • Quality of the foam
  • Structure and amount (e.g., creamy, loose, tight, quick breaking, etc.), and
  • Cleansing action

Physical compatibility of surfactant components can depend on viscosity, phase separation of liquids, crystallization, solubility limits, and temperature changes.

Important Considerations While Formulating with Surfactants

  1. Choosing the right surfactant type/co-surfactant system which has the greatest solubility for the oil phase.
  2. Adjusting the ratio of surfactant to co-surfactant.
  3. Determining the ratio of oil to surfactant/co-surfactant mixture.
  4. Add sufficient water to find the right microemulsion region.

Related Read: Get Rich Foams in Cleansing Products with Science-based Approach

Fundamentals to Successful Cleanser Construction

Fundamentals to Successful Cleanser Construction

While formulating any cleansing product, there are key considerations, as listed below, which you should be aware of and evaluate beforehand.
  • Determination of which part of the body is to be cleansed
  • Foam size and structure
  • Ease of building foam
  • Feel during application and after rinse-off
  • Viscosity during dispensing and use; and
  • Deposition of active ingredients

Surfactant Type Foam Structure Foam Break Deposition Skin Feel Viscosity Mildness
Anionic ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Ether Sulfates
Ammonium Halide Quats
Preferred Applications: Effective cleansing; Shampoos; Hand cleansers; Mild cleansing; Sensitive cleansing formulations
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Preferred Applications: Hair Conditioning; formulations for damaged hair
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Alkoxylated Alcohols
Amine Oxides
Preferred Applications: Mild cleansing; pH-independent formulations
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Preferred Applications: Mild cleansing formulations; Baby Shampoos
Performance Matrix - Cleansers for Face, Hand, and Body Care

It does not stop there. Also necessary is the development of an aesthetically pleasing product that consumers will continue to use. Additionally, as in-process foaming is a concern, consideration of equipment used during formulation is of importance; and, as surfactants need to dissolve quickly and fully, equipment, the order of addition of ingredients (to include surfactants), mixing rate, and temperature need to be considered.

Selection of a surfactant system is difficult because of the diversity of options. When deciding upon a system, it is important to consider the interaction of ingredients and how a surfactant-based cleansing system will be positioned in the marketplace. Because no two raw-material manufacturers use the same process(es), there is always a concern – as relates to manufacturer variations – regarding the quality and performance of ingredients.

Additionally, with any given manufacturer, there can be variances in the consistency of ingredients from batch to batch and lot to lot. Thus, surfactant specifications are critical to ensuring viscosity control, color, odor, pH, salt content, and foaming/cleansing characteristics.

When constructing a cleansing formula, one needs to divide the formula into functional buckets:
  1. Water

  2. Primary Surfactant(s) - The workhorse ingredient(s) required to remove soil from a substrate

  3. Co-Surfactant(s) - Used to add structure to formula (and could add foam density); conducive to forming a micelle structure that confers higher viscosity (Alkanolamide MEA and Betaines being the more common options)

  4. Rheology Modifier(s) - There are two types of rheology modifiers: polymeric and high melting point wax. Polymeric thickeners include Acrylate-chemistry, cellulosic, and gums (guar, xanthan and locust). High molecular weight/melting point waxes (e.g., Stearyl Alcohol and PEG esters) produce crystalline structures that provide a suspension of insoluble components. Their performance properties include:
    • Controlling rheology and yield stress - modifying the appearance, flow, and texture to alter pour and at-rest characteristics
    • Stabilizing oils and suspended particles
    • Thickening of surfactants - i.e., those that do not thicken with the addition of salt
    • Aesthetic modification - e.g., to impart a modified feel during application
    • Viscosity stabilization - i.e., preventing viscosity drift during long-term high-temperature stability testing

  5. Preservative(s) - Since cleansing product tend to be based on aqueous systems at relatively neutral pH, preservatives are critical to maintaining a micro-organism-free system

  6. pH Adjuster(s) - Alkaline and/or acidic (e.g., sodium hydroxide and citric acid)

  7. Miscellaneous Functional Ingredients -
    • Emolliency & Moisturization (e.g., glycerin, fatty acid esters, polymers),
    • Rinse-off aids
    • UV Stabilizers for colorants
    • Pearlizing agents
    • Antioxidants
    • Color
    • Fragrance

Face Cleanser Formulations

Face Cleanser Formulations

Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser

Remove excess oil without drying. Rinse clean. Every age. Every stage. Every day. This effective yet gentle facial cleanser was originally formulated for dermatologists, to keep normal to oily skin clean and healthy. Removes surface oils, dirt and makeup without leaving skin tight or overly dry. Rinses clean without leaving any pore-clogging residue.

INCI Ingredient Functionality Estimated %
Water Carrier q.s. to 100%
Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate (anhydrous %) Anionic Surfactant - Mild 3.0-3.75
Acrylates/Steareth-20 Methacrylate Copolymer Associative thickener - Structurant 2.0-2.5
Glycerin Humectant / Solvent Carrier 2.0-2.5
PEG-200 Hydrogenated Glyceryl Palmate Emulsifying Cleansing Agent 2.0-3.0
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (anhydrous %) Anionic Surfactant 2.5-3.5
Butylene Glycol Coupling Agent/Solubilizer 1.75-2.5
PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate Emulsifying Surfactant 1.75-2.0
Phenoxyethanol Preservative 0.2-0.4
Masking Fragrance Fragrance > 0.25
Panthenol Benefit – Hair Conditioning/Anti-static > 0.1
PEG-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil Emulsifying Surfactant 0.25-0.5
Disodium EDTA Chelating Agent > 0.1
Methylparaben Preservative 0.2-0.4
Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser Formulation


  • Add Methacrylate Copolymer to deionized water. Add Glycerin, Preservatives, EDTA to water system.
  • Add Sarconsinate & Sulfate with gentle mixing. Adjust pH with Sodium Hydroxide (optional) to desired pH.
  • In separate vessel, add all PEG-x, along with Panthenol and heated to melted. Add this to the Aq phase and mix until uniform.
  • Add combination of masking agent and butylene glycol, mix until solubilized and add to above mixture.

Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser

  • Gently removes impurities & improves complexion for fresh, clear skin.
  • Willowbark bionutrient rich cleanser detoxifies pores.
  • Dermatologist recommended brand. No harsh chemical sulfates, parabens, petrochemicals, dyes, and phthalates.

Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser gently washes away impurities and detoxifies pores for fresh, clear skin. This face wash contains natural salicylic acid from willowbark bionutrients that penetrates deep into skin to remove dirt, oil and makeup. Rinses clean with no pore-clogging residue. Suitable for acne prone skin. We've carefully formulated this product to be 90% naturally derived. The remaining ingredients are essential to blend the product together and maintain effectiveness.

INCI Ingredient Functionality Estimated %
Water Carrier q.s. to 100%
Cocamidopropyl Betaine (anhydrous %) Zwitterion Surfactant - Foam Booster 2.5-3.5
Decyl Glucoside Emulsion Stabilizer/cleanser 3.5
Glycerin Humectant/ Solubilizer 2.0-2.5
Cocamidopropyl  Hydroxysultaine (anhydrous %) Amphoteric Surfactant - Conditioner 1.0-2.0
Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate  (anhydrous%) Anionic Surfactant- mild foam booster (SLS replacement) 1.0-1.75
Salix Alba (Willow) Bark Extract Benefit - Claim 1.0
Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium  Chloride Film Forming Anti-static/conditioner 0.25-0.5
Sodium Benzoate Preservative 0.3-1.0
Fragrance Fragrance > 0.1-0.25
Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser Formulation


  • Put the water in the main mixing vessel and slowly add Guar.
  • Add the surfactants (betaine, hydroxysultaine, sulfoacetate), one at a time, and stir until fully dissolved.
  • Add rest (glucoside, benzoate, bark extract, frag).

Explore More Facial Cleansing Formulations Here

Hair Cleanser Formulations

Hair Cleanser Formulations

EverPure Volume Shampoo (L’Oreal) for Fine Hair

  • Sulfate-free color care system
  • Exclusively for color treated hair
  • Anti-fade system. 100% sulfate-free
  • No harsh salts
  • Natural botanicals, 100% vegan

Color-treated hair requires special care. So, in this color-preserving formula there are no harsh sulfates and salts that can strip and dull your color. The EverPure Sulfate-Free Color Care System protects and conditions hair for long-lasting color purity. EverPure shampoos create a luxurious and rich lathering experience, while natural aromatic properties from rosemary and juniper help energize and invigorate the senses. EverPure Volume Shampoo gently cleanses and infuses fine, flat hair with body and volume, without weighing it down. Hair is soft and full of body, helping your shine through.

INCI Ingredient Functionality Estimated %
Water Carrier q.s. to 100%
Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate Anionic Surfactant 1.5-2.5
Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate Anionic Surfactant-mild foam booster 1.0-1.5
Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate Anionic Surfactant
Cocamidopropyl Betaine Zwitterion Surfactant-Foam Booster
Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate Anionic Surfactant - Mild
Glycol Distearate Opacifying/Pearlizer 1.5-2.5
Glycereth-26 Humectant 1.0-.20
Decyl Glucoside Emulsion Stabilizer/cleanser 1.0-2.5
Parfum/Fragrance Fragrance 0.25-0.5
PPG-5-Ceteth-20 Co-solubilizer 0.5-1.0
Amodimethicone Intense Hair Conditioner
Polyquaternium-7 Film Forming/Anti-static 0.75-1.5
Methylparaben Preservative 0.3
PEG-55 Propylene Glycol Oleate Hair Conditioner 0.25-0.75
Propylene Glycol Carrier for botanicals 0.5-0.75
Carbomer Associative Thickener 0.1-0.25
C11-15 Pareth-7 Co-emulsifier
Benzophenone-3 Light Stabilizer 0.05-0.15
Benzyl Salicylate
Hexyl Cinnamal Fragrance Component <0.1
Glycerin Humectant 0.25-0.5
Trideceth-12 Co-emulsifier 0.1-0.25
Laureth-9 Glyceryl Stearate solubilizer/carrier
Linalool Fragrance Component <0.1
Tocopherol Vitamin – claim benefit
Limonene Fragrance Component
Benzyl Alcohol Preservative 0.1-0.2
Juniperus Communis Fruit Oil Claim Benefit <0.1
Methylchloroisothiazolinone Preservative 0.1-0.2
Rosmarinus Officinalis  Oil (Rosemary Leaf Oil) Claim Benefit <0.1
Methylisothiazolinone Preservative 0.1-0.2
Sodium Hydroxide pH Adjuster q.s.
Citric Acid
Everpure Volume Shampoo Formulation


  • Add associative thickener to Deionized Water and start mixing.
  • Add Sodium Laureth Sulfate with gentle mixing. Mix until uniform. 
  • Adjust pH to 6.5-6.7 with Sodium Hydroxide (18%). Mix until uniform.
  • Add Cocamidopropyl Betaine and rest of surfactants with mixing. Mix until uniform.
  • Add rest of ingredients to the batch with mixing. Mix until uniform.
  • Adjust pH to 4.8-5.2 with Citric Acid (50%). Mix until uniform.

Check Out Some More Hair Cleansing Formulations Here »

Don't Let Complicated Surfactant Selection Rules Hinder Attainment of your Perfect Formulation!

Learn to avoid instability issues in your cosmetic emulsions (o/w, w/o, blends…) by efficiently selecting and adapting your surfactant / emulsifier system for the current natural market needs. Take the course Emulsifiers & Surfactant Selection for Stable Cosmetics today!

Emulsifiers & Surfactant Selection for Stable Cosmetics

Find Suitable Surfactants / Cleansing Agent for Your Product

View a wide range of surfactants / cleansing agents available today, analyze technical data of each product, get technical assistance or request samples.

Key Applications



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