Shampoos, hand soaps and cleaning products typically contain surfactants, which are substances responsible for producing suds and cutting through grime. Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension of a liquid allowing it to spread more easily, serve as a wetting agent, disperse dirt, or produce a foaming action. Although some surfactants can be harmful to the environment in large amounts, when used correctly, many surfactants do not present a significant environmental risk.
Many surfactants possess both water-soluble and oil-soluble characteristics. These traits make surfactants capable of maintaining a mixed solution of oil and water. Many types of cosmetic products as well as cleaning solutions contain a surfactant in some shape or form.
Some people are familiar with surfactants contained in shampoos and personal cleansing products. The most commonly used surfactants are sodium laureth sulphate and sodium lauryl sulphate. These substances provide a lot of the lather and detergency in shampoo. Individuals often equate lather with cleansing ability, whether this is justified or not. Therefore, some cleaners will contain extra surfactants to achieve that desired rich lather.
Much of the concern surrounding surfactants is their impact on the environment. Cleansers are often washed down the drain after use, and some worry that they could seep into the ground and eventually harm plants and wildlife and impact groundwater.
New information has emerged that reinforces previous studies that soapsuds are not usually harmful to the environment. A comprehensive report by researchers at the Department of Environmental Science, AU Roskilde, at Aarhus University in Denmark looked at the environmental properties of detergent substances in personal care and cleaning products. The report indicates that, when substances are used correctly and responsibly, the risk to the surrounding environment is very low.
Many surfactants are designed to degrade rapidly. When they travel through wastewater treatment plants, they quickly break down. Even if many surfactants were directly deposited into the environment without treatment, their composition would not remain intact for very long.
Although many soaps are safe, those concerned about the environment may want to avoid surfactants comprised entirely of petroleum bases. However, many surfactants come from mixed sources. A surfactant may have a mix of plant-, animal- and petroleum-based sources.
As with any other environmental concern, moderation is key. Although surfactants in cleansing products are relatively safe, individuals should moderate their use and dispose of cleaning products in a safe manner. Always read product packaging to determine if a cleansing agent requires specialized disposal. Do not pour a substance down the drain without first learning of its potential impact on the environment.