Skip to main content

Goodbye Sulfates? The future of Eco-Beauty May be Sugar-Based Products

If you’ve ever wondered what gives shampoo its sudsy lather and ability to leave hair feeling squeaky clean, you can thank surfactants. Short for “surface-active agents,” these cleansing substances, found in everything from detergents to shower gels, help remove dirt and oil from skin and hair.

But as the demand for eco-friendly and nontoxic beauty products grows, the personal care industry is working to develop effective surfactants derived from natural ingredients. One alternative recently developed by scientists at the Switzerland-based chemicals company Clariant is the GlucoTain® family of surfactants. Made from sugars, GlucoTain products are gentle and more environmentally sustainable, without sacrificing cleansing and foaming properties.

“For the first time in the industry, these sugar-based surfactants allow an excellent cleaning effect to be combined with equally good nourishing properties,” said Peter Klug, Strategic Innovation Project Manager, Global Application Development ICS, Clariant. “They’re highly efficient and made from renewable raw materials.”

Eco-friendlier Surfactants that Clean and Nourish

The Science of Surfactants

The high surface tension of water means that it can’t naturally attach to oils and dirt, rendering it a less powerful cleaning agent on its own. You can see this phenomenon when rain falls on a window: The water molecules prefer to stick together forming beads, rather than spread out across the surface. This is where surfactants do their job. By reducing the surface tension of water, the water molecules can break up, allowing it to flow more easily and seep into areas.

Surfactants’ molecular structure also makes them more effective at attaching to dirt and oil. All surfactant molecules comprise a long hydrophobic end (repelled by water) and a hydrophilic end (attracted to water). The hydrophobic end attaches to dirt and oil, helping lift it from the scalp and hair shaft, while the hydrophilic end projects it into the water. During rinsing, water molecules attach themselves to the water-loving ends of the surfactant molecules and wash away the dirt and oil.

The Move to Natural

Surfactants are the most essential part of any cleaning agent, but traditionally, they have contained nonrenewable petroleum products and sulfates, which are found to be harsh and aggressive on the body. Two of the most commonly used sulfates in shampoo, sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) provide a rich lather, but they also dry out hair and skin, and can cause irritation.

While consumers are increasingly interested in natural and eco-friendly shampoos, one common complaint is that they don’t clean or lather as well. Creating a shampoo that performs and foams well comes down to innovative chemistry.

Sugar-based Surfactants that Clean and Nourish

The Length of the Alkyl Group

Until now, the most commonly used sugar-based surfactants have been alkyl polyglucosides. The next-generation GlucoTain products are a class of sugar-based surfactants, known as N-methyl glucamides. Much of the research in developing this new naturally derived surfactant focused on increasing the length of its alkyl group (a chain of carbon atoms), which determines many key properties, such as its ability to thicken, form small foam bubbles, and leave skin and hair feeling nourished and better hydrated afterward. Compared to their predecessors, the GlucoTain products are also available with longer chain versions, which aid in thickening, foam creaminess and leaving a refreshed, clean feeling on the skin. Additionally, they do not leave residue or cause unpleasant odors in formulation.

Sustainably Sourced and what it means for personalized beauty

Made almost entirely from sustainable raw materials (corn and coconut or palm oil derivatives), the GlucoTain surfactants meet the high standards required by European Union (EU) regulators for bio-based surfactants. These biodegradable cleansing agents also meet the requirements for the EU Ecolabel for environmentally friendly and health-compatible products.

Thanks to cutting-edge chemistry, our options for personal care products are sweeter than ever.

More greater stories

Page summary

Summarization in progress