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A general class of materials that, when dispersed in a liquid such as water, aid in the removal of dirt, oil, stains, and contaminants from a surface. Detergents contain a surface-active compound (surfactant) that has hydrophilic and hydrophobic groups, thus allowing the surfactant to contact a contaminant, then reduce its surface tension and wet it. The contaminant can then be displaced, solubilized, or emulsified. Synthetic detergents are generally classified as

In addition to surfactants, detergents may contain other additives such as bleaches, whitening agents and sudsing agents. Some detergents are designed to work in nonaqueous solutions such as gasoline and dry cleaning solvents. See also Cleanser and Soap.

Synonyms and Related Terms

detergents; surfactant; soap; cleanser; surface active agent


  • Ethoxylated surfactants are potentially toxic.
  • Anionic detergent can damage wool.

Resources and Citations

  • R. J. Gettens, G.L. Stout, Painting Materials, A Short Encyclopaedia, Dover Publications, New York, 1966
  • Richard S. Lewis, Hawley's Condensed Chemical Dictionary, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 10th ed., 1993
  • Rosalie Rosso King, Textile Identification, Conservation, and Preservation, Noyes Publications, Park Ridge, NJ, 1985
  • Richard C. Wolbers, Nanette T. Sterman, Chris Stavroudis, Notes for Workshop on New Methods in the Cleaning of Paintings, J.Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles, 1990
  • Fairchild's Dictionary of Textiles, Phyllis G.Tortora, Robert S. Merkel (eds.), Fairchild Publications, New York City, 7th edition, 1996

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