The Surfactants


Soaps are the salts (sodium salt in the illustration) of fatty acids and have the ability to emulsify lipids, fats, and oils by interacting with water through their hydrophilic heads and with the lipid at their hydrophobic tails.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

Surface-active agents, or surfactants, are a group of chemical compounds that lower the surface tension of water. Surfactants are the major ingredients in soaps and detergents. Soaps are salts of long-chain fatty acids and have both polar and nonpolar regions, allowing them to interact with polar and nonpolar regions in other molecules. They can interact with nonpolar oils and grease to create emulsions in water, loosening and lifting away dirt and microbes from surfaces and skin. Soaps do not kill or inhibit microbial growth and so are not considered antiseptics or disinfectants. However, proper use of soaps mechanically carries away microorganisms, effectively degerming a surface. Some soaps contain added bacteriostatic agents such as triclocarban or cloflucarban, compounds structurally related to triclosan, that introduce antiseptic or disinfectant properties to the soaps.

Soaps, however, often form films that are difficult to rinse away, especially in hard water, which contains high concentrations of calcium and magnesium mineral salts. Detergents contain synthetic surfactant molecules with both polar and nonpolar regions that have strong cleansing activity but are more soluble, even in hard water, and, therefore, leave behind no soapy deposits. Anionic detergents, such as those used for laundry, have a negatively charged anion at one end attached to a long hydrophobic chain, whereas cationic detergents have a positively charged cation instead.

Cationic detergents include an important class of disinfectants and antiseptics called the quaternary ammonium salts (quats), named for the characteristic quaternary nitrogen atom that confers the positive charge. Overall, quats have properties similar to phospholipids, having hydrophilic and hydrophobic ends. As such, quats have the ability to insert into the bacterial phospholipid bilayer and disrupt membrane integrity. The cationic charge of quats appears to confer their antimicrobial properties, which are diminished when neutralized. Quats have several useful properties. They are stable, nontoxic, inexpensive, colorless, odorless, and tasteless. They tend to be bactericidal by disrupting membranes. They are also active against fungi, protozoans, and enveloped viruses, but endospores are unaffected. In clinical settings, they may be used as antiseptics or to disinfect surfaces. Mixtures of quats are also commonly found in household cleaners and disinfectants, including many current formulations of Lysol brand products, which contain benzalkonium chlorides as the active ingredients. Benzalkonium chlorides, along with the quat cetylpyrimidine chloride, are also found in products such as skin antiseptics, oral rinses, and mouthwashes.

(a) Two common quats are benzylalkonium chloride and cetylpyrimidine chloride. Note the hydrophobic nonpolar carbon chain at one end and the nitrogen-containing cationic component at the other end. (b) Quats are able to infiltrate the phospholipid plasma membranes of bacterial cells and disrupt their integrity, leading t death of the cell.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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