Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Which surfactants should you buy?

People ask me all the time which surfactants they should buy, and this is a more complicated question than they think! If I could afford it, I'd have every single surfactant available on my shelves, but I know this isn't realistic. So how do you decide which ones get a permanent place in your formulating and which ones you dream about when you get a bonus at work?

As usual, we come to the goals of your products. If you're a bubble bath kind of person, then you want to choose surfactants that produce good flash foam and good bubbles. If body washes are your thing, choose gentle to mild cleansers with lots of lather and good skin feel. If you love shampoos, then choose gentle to mild cleansers suitable for your hair type with good lather and foam, and resistance in the presence of sebum. If you're like me and you love playing with surfactants...well, you might end up with a lot less in your bank account!

In my workshop I have these surfactants...
  • Amphosol CG (cocamidopropyl betaine): This is an essential surfactant for any formulator as it adds mildness, increases viscosity, and behaves as a mild cleanser.
  • Amphosol AS-40 (liquid) (C14-16 olefin sulfonate): A mild cleanser suitable for oily skin and hair. Great flash foam, good lather, good bubbles - it's a good all around inclusion in all the different things I might make with surfactants. I have the powdered AS-90 as well, but I don't tend to use that often.
  • Steol CS-230 (sodium laureth sulfate): A mild cleanser good for all skin and hair types. I like this for hand washes and body cleansers.
  • Steol CA-230 (ammonium laureth sulfate): A mild cleanser good for all skin and hair types. I like to use this where I might use SLeS, but I've only just bought this, so I'm not sure where it fits into my formulating yet.
  • SCI (sodium cocoyl isethionate): A staple for my shampoo bars, this offers great foam, good lather, good bubbles, and a lovely skin feel. I have flakes, noodles, and prills! (Yep, I really love this stuff!)
  • SLSa (sodium lauryl sulfoacetate): A staple for my shampoo bars, this offers excellent foam, lather, and bubbles with mild cleansing.
  • DLS mild (disodium laureth sulfosuccinate): This is a great for oily skin or hair with good foam, good detergency, and mild cleansing.
  • SMC taurate (sodium methyl cocoyl taurate): A gentle surfactant good for dry to normal skin that offers good skin feel.
  • Castille liquid soap: I've been using this a lot lately in household cleansers! It's great!
  • PEG-7 cocoate (non-ionic): A foam stabilizer that will thicken other surfactants as well as re-fattening skin. Again, this is new to me and I want to use it in body washes to increase the moisturizating nature.
  • Decyl glucoside (Plantapon, non-ionic): A good foamer that enhances cationic conditioniong and anti-irritant. This one is great for very mild formulations like facial cleansers or dry hair shampoos.
  • Cocamide DEA (non-ionic): It improves the density and stability of foams, and adds some serious thickening and moisturizing to surfactant mixes.
I also have these blends...
  • BSB (PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, Sodium Trideceth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Disodium Lauroamphodiacetate, PEG-150 Distearate, Sodium Laureth-13 Carboxylate, Quaternium-15): A gentle to mild cleansing blend great for all applications. I find it especially awesome in bubble baths to increase viscosity and making skin feel nice afterwards.
  • LSB (Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate and Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate): Because Voyageur is no longer carrying Bioterge 804, I've started to use this product to get sulfosuccinate into my surfactant mixes. It has excellent foam, excellent lather, and excellent bubbles, so it's an all around surfactant for many different uses.
  • Bioterge 804 (Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Lauramide DEA): As I mentioned, this is no longer carried at Voyageur, but it was great for oily hair products with good cleansing and fluffy lather.
So which ones should you pick up for your formulating fun? Consider your skin and hair type and what you want to make! If you have oily skin or hair, the sulfosuccinates and sulfonates are good choices, whereas if you have dry skin or hair, the milder cleansers like decyl glucoside or SMC or SMO Taurate might be your staple surfactants. The alkyl ether sulfates like ALeS and SLeS are good all around surfactants that you can use in just about every type of product you'll make! 

Also consider availability. Although I love the DLS Mild and SMC Taurate, I don't make those the main surfactants in my products because the shipping costs make it far too expensive to order from the Herbarie regularly. I can drive to Voyageur in 45 minutes, so I tend to formulate with the Amphosol CG, Amphosol AS-40, and SLeS or BSB/LSB the most. (Having said this, Creations from Eden in Edmonton is carrying some of the Herbarie's products, including DLS mild and the polyglucose/lactylate blend! Yay!)

I think every workshop should have cocamidopropyl betaine because of its ability to thicken and increase mildness. I like to have SLeS around because it's a great all around surfactant for creating cleansing products, and I like to have C14-16 olefin sulfonate because it's a great cleanser but also a good inclusion in bubble baths.

As for powders, I think SCI is just fantastic stuff - your skin does feel more moisturized afterwards and it's great for shampoo bars and thickening other surfactant mixes. If you want to make mild cleansers, shampoo bars, bubble baths, or things like bubble bars, SCI is a great addition to your surfactant shelf, but choose either the one with stearic acid (flakes, noodles) or without (prills) depending upon your skin and hair type. Or get both! SLSa is very useful, but mostly for the bubbleage as in solid products as it can really thicken your bubble baths far too much (I used 10% and it was like concrete!) 

What about blends? I remember LabRat mentioning that we shouldn't get too reliant on a blend of surfactants just in case our supplier stopped carrying it. That happened with the Bioterge 804 - out of the blue, Voyageur has stopped stocking it, so I've had to work around it by making my own versions. (The reason? Because people are scared of sulfates, so they're replacing sulfates with other things. I understand Voyageur's rationale, but that's so annoying!)

But if you're formulating for yourself or just starting out, sometimes a blend means you don't have to spend a fortune on ten different bottles of stuff to make a great shampoo or body wash. Both Voyageur and the Herbarie carry some great surfactant blends like BSB, LSB, and Baby blend concentrate, all of which are great inclusions in your products!

Where can I get surfactants? Here's a short list...feel free to add to it in the comments section (with links, if possible!) A lot of times, the surfactants are listed under raw materials or miscellaneous or speciality ingredients, so you might have to do a bit of extra looking around on the site of your usual supplier.
  • Link to Voyageur Soap & Candle (Canada) - all the surfactants I use, including SLSa, and the LSB and BSB blends. 
  • Link to Aquarius Aroma & Soap (Canada) - the only place I know in Canada for SCI (Jordapon prilled). Also carry SLSa, cocamide DEA, and SLeS. 
  • Link to Creations from Eden (Canada) - carrying DLS mild and polyglucose/lactylate blend.  
  • Link to the Herbarie (America) - too many to list. 
  • Link to the Personal Formulator (America). They carry the glutamates under natural surfactants, as well as tons of others! 
What surfactants are must-haves for your workshop? Do you have any suggestions for where to buy them? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Susan said...


Loving the surfactant posts! I am learning so much about each surfactants "personality". It will be a great aid in building and evaluating my bubbly creations.

How much of a difference do you notice in "subbing" out a certain surfactant? In bubble baths, bars and washes I don't notice much but in Shampoo bars, I notice it instantly. Me needs to take better notes:)

Thanks again.

pish said...

So what have you been doing to sub for the Bioterge 804? I see it in a lot of your older formulations. Voyageur still carries Bioterge AS-40 and AS-90 - how was the 804 different?

The schooling I am getting from your site is absolutely wonderful! I read labels on my store-bought stuff now and say a-ha! : )

Thank you for all your help - you rock!!

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Susan! It depends on the product. I can tell with facial products almost immediately if I've chosen the wrong surfactant. SCI with stearic is terrible for my oily skin; SCI without stearic is very nice. Decyl glucoside leaves my skin dewy feeling, but the oil comes roaring back before lunchtime!

I can tell the difference in a shampoo! When I subbed the DLS mild for the Bioterge 804, I had an extra day before my hair got oily! Yay! And the SMC taurate felt lovely when I was washing, but did reduce my non-oily hair days down to two and a bit (oily about half way through the third day!)

With bubble baths I just want bubbles and a foamy lather that sticks around. I've noticed the biggest difference comes with the surfactant concentration. If I take the C14-16 olefin sulfonate to 10% more, it creates a lovely foamy layer my mom loves!

What have you found?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi pish! I usually use it in shampoos, so I've been substituting DLS mild (sulfosuccinate) or LSB (includes the sulfosuccinate). In the recipes where I'm already using LSB, (like this shampoo recipe or a shampoo bar), I've been using the C14-16 olefin sulfonate (Bioterge AS-40) mainly because I'm out of DLS mild.

If you're looking for something for oily hair, you could use DLS mild or LSB (sulfosuccinates are great for oily hair!), C14-16 olefin sulfonate (Bioterge AS-40 or AS-90), or ALeS or SLeS, in combination with cocamidopropyl betaine.

kontakt said...

If you are such a surfactant junkie (according to your last post), have you possibly heard about cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine? It's in my fav shampoo (aqua, a taurate, myristamine oxide, cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, glycerin, yadda yadda list of extracts and essential oils and I don't know what ad nauseam). The INCI directory lists it as (copy paste) ANTISTATIC, CLEANSING, FOAM BOOSTING, HAIR CONDITIONING, SKIN CONDITIONING, SURFACTANT, VISCOSITY CONTROLLING which is quite a lot - can really one and the same ingredient do all this? Wow. Do you think it's in there for cleansing properties, conditioning or something else? (I'm not expecting you to spend hours searching info for me. I've done a couple of googlings but not really put my heart into it. Googling ingredients often yields lots of quite irrelevant hits. Just asking you in case you'd have some relevant info nearby.)

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

The sultaines are related to the betaines and belong in the category of alkyl betaines. A sultaine is a sulfobetaine, so the difference is the anionic part of the surfactant. With the betaines, it's a carboxylate; with the sultanes it's sulfate.

Yep, it can do all those things! It's a very gentle cleanser, it's a viscosity enhancer, and it increases mildness in our products when the pH is below 6. It offers great flash foam as well as stabilizing lather and foam. And it's a humectant! The quaternized nitrogen is positively charged, so it'll offer some conditioning and anti-static qualities.

I would put it in a shampoo for all these qualities - to increase the mildness, offer mild cleansing, increase my viscosity, increase the lather and foam, and increase the hygroscopic nature of the product. I use cocamidopropyl betaine in every single surfactant product I make for all of those qualities - I buy it by the 4 litre bottle!

Kat said...


In case you're wondering, yes, this is the same "Kat" that's been bugging you with questions the last few days! I've had trouble finding 2 of the surfactants you use in some of your formulas - cocamide DEA and sodium cocoyl isethionate (SCI). I also didn't have much luck finding glycol distearate, but I found some glycol stearate, which I guess will suffice. Can you share where you buy yours? I live in Southern California, but get everything by mail anyhow, so I'm happy to order by mail. Thanks so much!

The Fawn said...

Hi Susan,

I currently have coco glucoside on hand (http://www.newdirectionsaromatics.ca/coco-glucoside-plantacare-818-up-p-1900.html)
and would like to make a facial cleanser for myself.
But I find that with coco glucoside at 30% as the single surfactant, there's very little bubble/lather and no foam at all.
I am one of those people who wants LOTS of foam and lather if possible! :D
I am looking at cocamidopropyl betaine, but not sure if it will give me enough foam and lather.
Could you advice me which surfactant I should add to the coco glucoside if I would like a cleanser that's gentle enough for sensitive but acne prone skin?

Thank you!

Robert said...

Just to answer the Fawn's question, adding cocamidopropyl betaine will almost certainly increase the lather of the face cleaner. Whether it will give you "enough foam and lather" I can't say, because who knows how much is enough for you?

If you want to use an alkamidopropyl betaine, coca- is widely used and widely available in various quantities, but there are some I like better but may be harder to get in small quantities. Lauramidopropyl betaine is a little foamier if you like fluffy foam; palmitamidopropyl betaine (harder to get), especially in combination with lauramidopropyl will make a creamier foam, and palmitamidopropyl betaine has also been shown to leave skin smoother, and leaves a softer after-feel.

There are probably going to be differences in different makers' cocamidopropyl betaines, because they may use coconut oil that's been somewhat fractionated (to recover particular fatty acids for other uses), so their "coca-" might have a different distribution of chain lengths from someone else's "coca-", and may even differ between batches. I wouldn't think that to make much of a difference, but considering my experience using coca-, laura-, myrista-, and palmitamidopropyl betaines, it seems subtle differences in chain length distribution can have subtle effects on foam quality and skin after-feel. But I don't have a GC or HPLC to check them out directly.

Niki said...

Love the work you do! I use your blog often as a trusted reference. Thank you! My question is about surfactants. I have oily/dehydrated skin but find most surfactants dry it out. I would like to formulate a gel cleanser or cream cleanser with grape seed oil, rose water and activated charcoal. I don't know much about formulating gels (and don't want to have to buy a million ingredients) But for a cream cleanser, could I essentially make my usual cream/lotion recipe and factor in an appropriate amount of Coco Glucoside as my only surfactant? I tend to use NDA as my supplier and they happen to sell that. I do have some citric acid but am unsure of how to use it to lower the PH if needed. I've been using my cream recipe as a cleanser but find it doesn't leave my skin feeling clean. Wondered if there was a single surfactant I could use to add cleansing properties without drying. Any advice you can give on this would be greatly appreciated. Thanks again!

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Niki. It's not easy to get something to foam or lather in a cream product, so I wonder if you wouldn't be better off making a facial cleanser with loads of moisturizing ingredients if you have oily skin rather than a cream cleanser with a surfactant in it. You can try any surfactant you want in the lotion - try it at 10%. Decyl glucoside is as good a choice as any, but don't go over 10% or you'll mess with the pH too much. I have some creamy foamy cleansers on the blog - do a search and you'll find at least two of them - and you could try those as well.

Pier said...

The only place where I could find SLSA Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate,
but still don't know if it's good ! Suppose to be a mild one.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Pier. You can get SLSa from Aquarius Aroma & Soap and Voyageur Soap & Candle, as I mention in the post. I don't recommend Saffire Blue for a number of reasons. If you want to learn more, read this post about how she was trying to sue me or read the comments in this post about some horrible customer service experiences.

Pier said...

Thanks Susan. After read all posts concerning Safire and the way they treat you, I won't buy anything from there.
I finally found SLSA in Voyageur under the name of Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate. I was looking for SLSA that's why I didn't found.
I still have the problem to find Amphosol AS 90 or SLeS, the one you use in your body wash. They don't have it in Voyageur. I wonder if I could replace by Bioterge AS40 or any other one that you will suggest. I usually buy my products in Voyageurs or NDA due to the fact that I am living rural remote area of Quebec and shipment is costly, than I try to order only from one company.

Pier said...

forget to tell you that your body wash with Amphosol AS 90 recipe is :

Voyageur has the Amphosol CG but not the AS 90.
Thanks again for you help.

Pier said...

forget to tell you that your body wash with Amphosol AS 90 recipe is :

Voyageur has the Amphosol CG but not the AS 90.
Thanks again for you help.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Pier. The SLSa is in the link I posted above as Lanthanol. Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate is not SLSa. It's disodium laureth sulfosuccinate. As for the SLeS - they carry it as Steol. And the AS-90 should be Bioterge AS-40, but they carry both.

Please check out the FAQ where I talk about learning INCI names. It'll help you know what you are buying.

Justin said...

Hey, I'm trying to figure out how to make my family's favorite lotion and I've been able to find all of the ingredients except Distearyldimonium Chloride.. What would be a good substitute?

Danuta Kildan said...

There is a new place called
Candora, the owner is the most helpful and nice person I had ever knew. They are placed in London, Ontario.
will link
She carries a few surfacants, good prices, and an excellent costumer service. This place is worth to be in your list of supplier. Merry Xmas Susan:)

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Danuta! Merry Christmas! I'm posting this information in the Canadian supplier list in the FAQ as this looks to be a great supplier! I see she has Monoi de Tahiti! Woo!

Mary Walton said...

very interesting thread, is coco glucoside available in a powder version. would it be possible for fellow members to mention the powdered surfactants they use and if any are approved as natural, thanks. I am using lathanol at the moment, but would like to hear of other possibilities. Thanks!

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Mary. I've only seen DLS, SLS, SLSa, and sodium coco sulphate as powders, and none of those would be considered natural. (Although I don't consider decyl glucoside natural, so we might need to work on that definition...)

Anonymous said...

You people really do love your surfactants!

If you want a non-toxic, biodegradable, hypoallergenic and truly Eco-friendly surfactant, look no further then Natural Soap Formulas a family run business out in South Florida.

I have been using this stuff for a year now from washing whats left of my hair to degreasing my mower! www.kdgoldrtu.com

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hey KD Gold. If you're so proud of your product, why don't you share your ingredient list? Just curious...

Bilalahmad Shafiq said...

susan you did not post about SLS( Sodium Lauryl sulphate) is a powder form and LAS (linear alkyl sulphonate ) mostly used in washing powders.
and SlS best thick with NaCl....

Bilalahmad Shafiq said...

also ALS( Ammonium lauryl sulphate thicks with Ammonium Chloride Salt not Sodium Chloride.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Bilalahmad. Have you looked at the other sections of this blog? There is no reasonf for me to suggest the first two surfactants as my readers aren't going to buy those for making hair or skin care products. As for ALS, I've mentioned that on the blog before.

Paige B said...

Hi Susan, where where where do you get ACI? I'd really like to get some, but the only place I've found it is The Herbarie, and apparently BASF is discontinuing the product they carried so they are getting rid of stock and only have 20lb sizes left. I've asked before and they are not willing to break that up into smaller amounts. I am not really looking to spend $300 and store 20lb of surfactant right now. Like you, I love love love SCI, but find the high melting point difficult to deal with. I really want to get my hands on this liquid version!

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Paige! I get mine at Aquarius Aroma & Soap in Mission, B.C..

Paige B said...

Thank you! I'm moving at the end of the month, so will wait until that is done, but then Imma get me some! My luck it will all be gone by then, lol.

Baby Kat said...

What a wonderful and educative post! I was about to order the ingredients to make shampoo for oily hair when I read about the discontinuation of Bioterge 804 by the seller. The alternatives you gave were great and I found the Apple surfactant from The Herbarie very appealing but they do not have a formulary. I would appreciate a shampoo formula with any alternative sufactant, especially for oily hair. Thanks! I love your blog, I learn so much every time I read through it.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Baby Kat! Can I direct you to the hair care or newbie section for the recipe you seek?

Baby Kat said...

Hi Susan, I looked it up on my own but I could not find the appropriate post. I would appreciate your linking me, thanks! ROX

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

If you want to substitute one thing for another, I suggest reading the posts on how to make a shampoo so you'll get which ingredients can be substituted for another. I don't have any posts on using that specific surfactant, but if you read the posts on how to make a shampoo. I'm sure you'll see how to use the ingredient you have in place of something I've used.

I'm fairly sure you're cursing me right now, but I'm a firm believer in teaching someone how to fish rather than doing it for them. If you read through the shampoo making posts in the hair care section, I know you'll find the answers to your question in very short order!

Baby Kat said...

Hahaa not at all. I am just getting started so I actually don't have any surfactants. I bought a gallon of unscented shampoo base from Bulk Apothecary a while back and we have been using that one, plus the addition of essential oils. I was planning on shopping for the ingredients to make shampoo next month, and I saw your lovely recipe using Bioterge, which the merchant doesn't carry anymore. Bummer. Anyway, I will keep reading your posts and I am sure that I will find a recipe to get myself started with shampoos. Thanks for replying.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Try this one! It's my new favourite!

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan

In one of your recipes it states 10% SMC or SMO, can I replace this with SCI as this is the only one I have and would I be able to do this with all the recipes that calls for a different one?

Kind Regards


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Genevieve! Sure, but I suggest you read up about how to use SCI in a liquid product before making it. It may not melt as well as you'd like and you want to use the right surfactants to make sure it will melt properly.

I don't want to say you can substitute it in every recipe because not every recipe is designed to be easily changed. I suggest you try to make one thing, then see if you want to try using it in something else. SCI is a lovely surfactant, but it's a pain to melt. Look up the posts on temperature and see what happens when you don't melt it just right.

MiteLie said...

Dear Susan,

My local supplier(where i can find Sodium C14 C16 Olefin Sulfonate) suggest me with Sodium Methyl 2-Sulfolaurate (and) Disodium 2-Sulfolaurate from Stepan (2-3 blends), but i don't find any review/information about this surfactant except from Stepan itself. Do you ever had an experience with this surfactant?