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Cleaning up

May 01, 2003

Suds are nice, but in detergents it is surfactants--chemicals that take their name from "surface active agents"--do the real work. They loosen grease and other particles, then hold them in suspension to allow them to be rinsed away. Suds often play far more minor roles, including forming a barrier on top of the dish water to keep it warm.


Surfactants at work


Beating grease

1) Surfactants allow water to get between the surface and grease, causing the grease to detach.

2) The grease eventually becomes coated with surfactants, preventing it from sticking to the glass before being rinsed away.


Surfactants allow water to get wetter

A. Normally, water molecules are attracted to one another and pull together.

B. This pulling-together action creates surface tension, causing water to bead.

C. Surfactants reduce that tension and allow water to spread more easily over surfaces.


Additional surfactant uses

* Helps vitamins dissolve.

* Used in making foods such as cake and margarine.

* Used in dyeing and weaving in production of clothes.

* Makes concrete stronger and easier to work with.

* Keeps fertilizers from sticking to produce.

Sources: How Stuff Works; Nihon-Emulsion Co.

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