What Are Biodegradable Surfactants?

Once thought to disappear once washed down the drain, shampoos and detergents contain ingredients that do not simply dissolve in water. Such products are being reformulated and relabeled to appeal to the environmentally conscious shopper. A greater awareness and concern for the environment has led many companies to produce products that claim to be safe for the environment, biodegradable, all natural and "green." Among these claims is that a product contains biodegradable surfactants.

The Science of Surfactants

Surfactants, also known as surface active agents, are present in household cleaners, cleansers, shampoos and other products used for cleaning and bathing. Proctor and Gamble, the maker of a wide variety of cleaners, explains that when a surfactant is dissolved in water it "gives a product the ability to remove dirt from surfaces such as human skin, textiles, and other solids." Surfactants loosen dirt and oil and help remove them from surfaces and fibers. Surfactants are able to do to dirt what water cannot.

Environmental Impact

Surfactants keep clothes and linens fresh and clean, remove dirt and residue from hair, and clean stains from upholstery. But once they are washed down the drain and emptied into the ocean, surfactants have a negative impact on the aquatic environment. The European Textile Services Association reports that "most surfactants are more or less toxic to aquatic organisms due to their surface activity which will react with the biological membranes of the organisms."

Biodegradable Surfactants

Much concern has been given to the effect surfactants have on the environment. This has led to the production of biodegradable surfactants. Greener Choices explains that a surfactant can be considered biodegradable "if the product will break down and decompose into by-products found in nature in a short period of time." With more consumers choosing products that have "biodegradable" on the label, Greener Choices warns that "saying something is 'biodegradable' does not tell you how long or under what conditions it will biodegrade."

Consumer Awareness

Environmentally conscious consumers may have do more than read labels in order to find products with the least amount of negative impact on the environment. Greener Choices suggests that shoppers keep in mind that there are not any specific standards for claims that a product is biodegradable. Parts of a product may be biodegradable, but the entire product does not have to be biodegradable in order to use the claim on the packaging. Greener Choices points out that, unlike food and drug labels, cleaning products are not required to list all of their ingredients unless the product contains disinfectants or antimicrobial pesticides. In addition, there is no official commission that checks the biodegradable claims made by such products. Questions regarding a product's claims should be directed to the manufacturer.