Synthetic Detergent

Definition - What does Synthetic Detergent mean?

Synthetic detergent is any synthetic substance, other than soap, that is an effective cleanser and functions equally well as a surface-active agent in hard or soft water. It is a non-soap cleanser that exerts its effect by lowering the surface tension of an aqueous cleansing mixture.

Synthetic detergent has varied applications like:

  • Washing clothes
  • Fuel additives to prevent fouling
  • Biological reagent
  • Soapless cleansers used in an array of products

Corrosionpedia explains Synthetic Detergent

Synthetic detergent is a cleansing substance that acts similarly to soap but is made from chemical compounds rather than fats and lye. These detergents were developed in order to replace soaps for cleaning, to overcome some of soap's shortcomings. This included soap's inability to lather in hard or acidic environments, as it is reliant on fats and oils.

These substances are usually alkylbenzenesulfonates, a family of compounds that are similar to soap but are more soluble in hard water, because the polar sulfonate (of detergents) is less likely than the polar carboxyl (of soap) to bind to calcium and other ions found in hard water. Synthetic detergents can be made from petrochemicals, fats and oils. Detergents are commonly available as powders or concentrated solutions.

Synthetic detergent molecules generally consist of a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail. The hydrophobic, long hydrocarbon chain tail of the detergent molecule is attracted to particles of oil or grease by dispersion forces. The hydrophilic, charged or polar head of the detergent molecule is attracted to water molecules. Branched-chain synthetic detergents are far less biodegradable than continuous-chain synthetic detergents.

Synthetic detergents can be classified as:

  • Anionic: Having negatively charged head and widely used due to cost and performance. Uses include:
    • Laundry detergents
    • Dishwashing liquids
    • Oven cleaners

  • Cationic: Having a positively charged head. Uses include:
    • Cleaning plastics
    • Hair shampoos
    • Fabric softeners and conditioners

  • Non-ionic or neutral: Having an uncharged head. Uses include:
    • Car shampoos
    • Dishwasher detergents
    • Cosmetics

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