Natural or Synthetic Surfactants in Your Natural Beauty Products: Why the Difference Matters

Important to natural beauty products is the art, or rather, science, of efficacy. While natural ingredients are effective in their own right, they often need stabilizing and a boost to do their job. Blame part of that on our relationship with synthetic ingredients over the last century--many byproducts of petroleum and other industries. But these synthetics have come to define performance, even if much of it is just bells and whistles--or in this case, foam and lather. Enter: surfactants, which help to not only remove oil and dirt, but also help to leave hair and skin feeling soft and clean. But at what price?

“Surfactants are often used in combination with synthetic foam boosters, foam stabilizers and thickeners to create the illusion of a rich product,” notes Terressentials.com. “It is important to note that there are thousands of commercially-available surfactants and most of them have not been studied long-term for human or environmental health effects.”

You’re probably familiar with some of the many names for synthetic surfactants such as sodium laureth sulfate, or polyethylene glycol. These synthetic surfactants can be harsh on skin and hair, stripping oils, as they’re intended to do, which can lead to more dryness and irritation, which, you guessed it, usually leads you to use more of the product to combat flakiness and excess oil buildup (a side effect of over-drying skin).

Fortunately, numerous botanicals naturally produce surfactants, often called saponins. The problem with saponins is they don’t create that luxe foaming action we’re so used to from synthetic surfactants. But, if you’re able to live without shampooing that makes you feel like you’re in a car wash, these natural surfactants are bona fide ingredient stars to look for in your skin and hair care products.

Common natural surfactants include castile soap, yucca extract, soapwort, coconut and starch glycosides and quillaja bark extract. Natural surfactants give you the dirt and oil removal benefits without the excess stripping of your skin’s natural oils.

And unlike synthetics, there’s no risk of cancer. That’s right, some synthetic surfactants called ethoxylated surfactants, can use ethylene or propylene oxide, which may be contaminated with a known carcinogen called dioxane. 

So not only do synthetic surfactants strip skin of natural lipids and oils but they could potentially introduce a carcinogen into a harmless daily routine. We think that switching to natural surfactants and foregoing the foam is definitely worth avoiding those consequences!