Detergent is a broad term that can mean bar soaps, liquid soaps, powders and tablets. All detergents are cleaning agents for the purpose of removing dirt and oils in water. Detergents also employ a wide variety of ingredients, including surface active agents, foam producers, antiseptic/antibacterial components, fragrances, moisturizers and colorants.
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Surface Active Agents - Surfactants
A surfactant is a surface active chemical that contains two parts. One part is hydrophilic or water-loving and the second part is lipophilic or oil-loving. Dirt and oils collect on the human body, clothing, dishes, carpets and hard surfaces. Detergents containing surfactants use the lipophilic end of the agent to capture the dirt and oils which are then carried away with the water. Many different types of surfactants exist and are chosen for the specific detergent and its application. Sodium lauryl sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate are common surfactants.
Personal Hygiene Ingredients
The personal care/hygiene industry is huge. Detergents for personal use are usually bar soaps, liquid soaps, shampoos and other skin cleansers. These ingredients are mild and impart moisturizing and emollient (soothing substance) properties such as glycerin, aloe vera and jojoba oil. Other ingredients impart fragrances from essential oils (gardenia, honeysuckle and vanilla) and antibacterial actions (triclosan) as well as gentle cleansing. Specialized active ingredients offer anti-aging properties (collagen and retinol), relaxation agents (chamomile) and hair removal (potassium thioglycolate). It is important to note that personal care and cosmetic detergent products are not regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration.
Detergents are also used for laundry cleaning, household cleaners and dish washing. Hand dish washing detergents are usually mild since they come into contact with skin. Laundry soaps and detergents often contain active ingredients such as bleaches, stain removal agents (such as limonene) and polymers to aid the cleaning of fabrics. Household cleaners contain less surfactants to reduce suds but include antimicrobial active agents for disinfectant properties. Industrial cleaners often contain aggressive surfactants (amphoteric sodium deoxycholate) used to deep clean concrete, engines and other heavily soiled equipment.