What's in Shampoo – Surfactant Guide

Welcome to the third installment in this mini-series about shampoo ingredients. Prevously, I touched on why it is necessary to use a mix of different surfactants to compose a shampoo or body wash.

Below is a mini-guide to the surfactants I use in my 'lathery' products. Since you now know what the different categories are (if not, you can catch up here), I've grouped them by category. As luck would have it, most surfactants just aren't exciting enough to have common names (sorry guys, I really did try to find them).

Therefore most of these ingredients are listed by their INCI name. Personally, I find it a little disappointing they don't have common names and am tempted to make up my own. Even after working with them for years, there's a few of these names I still have trouble pronouncing.


Mipa-Laureth Sulphate 

As mild an anionic surfactant as it gets. Produced from palm oil, mipa-laureth sulphate has a higher oil content than other anionics, making it less drying and less harsh. I have actually seen it mentioned positively by both scientists and environmentalists.
Biodegradability factor: good

Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate 

Made by reacting a fatty acid with lactic acid. It has good foam-boosting properties and mild cleansing ability. Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate is among the mildest surfactants in this category.
Biodegradability factor: good

Sodium Lauryl Glucose Carboxylate 

Made by reacting coconut/palm oil with starch/sugar. Foams well and is among the mildest anionic surfactants.
Biodegradability factor: good


Sodium Cocoamphoacetate 

Very gentle cleanser that also moisturizes and conditions. Derived from coconut oil, it increases mildness and viscosity of a mix and is kind enough for sensitive skin, babies, and even facial use.
Biodegradability factor: very good


Cocamidopropyl Betaine (sometimes called CAPB)

A super mild amphoteric surfactant based on coconut oil (I know it's in the wrong category -- keep reading). It always functions as a co-surfactant, and is also a good emulsifier and thickener that offers some conditioning. Depending on the pH of the mixture, it behaves either as an anionic or as a cationic surfactant. I use this in all of my Hair & Body washes, where, because of the pH, it functions as a cationic (increasing the mildness of the mix).
Biodegradability factor: good


Coco Glucoside

a foaming agent, conditioner and emulsifier, coco glucoside enhances the moisturizing properties of a mix. It is derived from coconut oil and fruit sugars. Best of all, coco glucoside is so gentle to skin and hair that it is compatible with all skin types.
Biodegradability factor: very good

 Decyl Glucoside 

this gentle surfactant is sourced from wheat and/or corn sugar and acts as an emulsifier. Like coco glucoside, it helps reduce any potential irritation from other surfactants. Biodegradability factor: very good

Lauryl Glucoside (sometimes also called Plantacare)

Sourced from coconut oil and sugar. It is among the gentlest surfactants and is not only biodegradable, but breaks down into the environment quickly and completely.
Biodegradability factor: very good

Glycol Distearate 

Fatty acids from coconut and/or palm oil that act as an emulsifier. 

Biodegradability factor: unknown (I am still researching. As of writing this, no water quality standards or criteria have been established for glycol distearate by either the US or Canadian governments, nor can I find any European info on it. There is info on very similar ingredients that is all positive, but that's as close as I can get at this time).


Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (also known as SLS)

A synthetic-based anionic surfactant. SLS has a high skin irritation potential as compared to the other surfactants (not just the ones mentioned in this mini guide). 

Because of this, it has earned itself a – albeit exaggerated – nasty reputation.

The main reason you find SLS in many commercial products is because it is inexpensive, foams up really well (even to the point where it can help boost the foaming capabilty of the other surfactants in the mix) and is easily thickened with salt (another inexpensive ingredient). In other words, it's ideal for mass production.

As for how dangerous and horrible it might be: this is a gross exaggeration on the part of many fearmongers. SLS can be the most correct ingredient to add to ensure mildness - depending on the formula!
Biodegradability factor: acceptable

Sodium Laureth Sulphate (also known as SLeS)

Echoes almost all of SLS's properties although is slightly milder than SLS.
Biodegradability factor: poor

Shall We Put Things Into Perspective?

I know there has been a lot of controversy about SLS and SLeS as of late, and I think it's fine to publicize useful information regarding possible health hazards of ingredients like SLS, SLeS, parabens etc.

However, I find it distasteful and completely unfair to use scare tactics and to misinform. It benefits absolutely no one. 

NOTE: The biodegradability factor ratings are purely my own attempt to give you some sort of spot on a scale of sustainability and are based on the collected information I have been able to find on each ingredient.

What's Next

Due to several requests, I'll be focusing entirely on silicones next time. Stay tuned!


Anette said…
FANTASTISK. 1000 tak - meget, meget værdifuld info. kh Anette
LisaLise said…
Du er da noget så velkommen. :)
kt679 said…
Lise - just have to let you know how much I appreciate the information on not only the acceptable/good ingredients but, most especially, on the bad ones. I have often read that certain ingredients are bad but don't always understand why. I hope you continue to educate us on the good, the bad, and the ugly.
LisaLise said…
Hi Katie,
You're very welcome. I'm not sure it's quite fair to label SLS and SLeS as 'bad' (maybe ugly is more fitting). I find them unacceptable for my products because they are not plant-based (and too harsh). It worries me that misinformation can spiral out of control to the point where hysteria takes over and people are confused about fact and fiction. A little horror story on that is coming up in the next shampoo installment.
Anonymous said…
Hello Lise-

As a chemist I agree with your assertion that misinformation leads to mass hysteria. I just would like to echo that many of these "synthetic" ingredients are derived from Nature and that ALL 'natural' ingredients are composed of Chemicals! Some natural ingredients can be just as potent and dangerous as so-called synthetic products. Note the recent scare regarding soy products. OK I'm off my soap box. Just wanted to thank you for your objective perspective. Cheers.

LisaLise said…
Beautifully put Sonja, and thank you for your very kind words. :)
my daily walk said…
Hi Lise,

Thank you for the great information you shared with us..
I have a question, which surfactant can be use for primary surfactant? can it be use alone without the secondary one?
Thank you..
LisaLise said…
Hi My Daily walk - Some lotion crafters use Cocamidopropyl Betaine solo, and also as a primary surfactant. :)
Anonymous said…
-Glycol Distearate- i found this on the ingredient list on cookies! And if i'm not wrong even in procesed meat products...i guess now they use it to make them more puffier, like baking soda?
LisaLise said…
HI Anon - I haven't seen this used in consumables, but then. I haven't looked for it. Are you sure it was this exact spelling?
Unknown said…
Hi :)

Do you know about SCI Natriumkocoisethionat - nonionic, how it is and works on my scin?

I would like to use it as hard shampoo

Unknown said…

Nu ser jeg du også svarer på dansk, det er meget bedre for mig at få svar på mit spørgsmål på Dansk :)

På forhånd Tak!

LisaLise said…
HI Mary - Du kan sagtens bruge SCI til shampoo bars og samtidig bruge shampoo bars på huden. Prøv at kigge på nogle af de seneste blogposts hvor du finder opskrift op shampoo bars. Jeg bruger disse også som almindelig sæbe. :)