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A commonly used shortened form of surface-active agent. Surfactants are compounds which reduce interfacial tension at the boundaries between gases, liquids and solid. They promote wetting and penetration of liquids into solids and act as a detergent, soap, emulsifier, or dispersing agent.

  • Anionic surfactants: Most often used in detergents and soaps. Include organic sulfates, sulfonates and phosphates and salt of carboxylic acids, that are effective at low concentrations and have a tendency to foam.
  • Cationic surfactants: Most include primary, secondary or tertiary amines
  • Nonionic surfactants: Most produce covalent bonds with water-soluble groups. These include ethoxylated alkyl alcohols and alkyl phenols as wells as many more. They usually do not foam and have been used as emulsifiers in acrylic emulsion paints.

Synonyms and Related Terms

surface active agent (AAT preferred); surface-active agent; surfactants; wetting agent; detergent; penetrant; emulsifier; penetrant; dispersing agent

Resources and Citations

  • Wikipedia: Surfactant (Accessed June 2023)
  • R. J. Gettens, G.L. Stout, Painting Materials, A Short Encyclopaedia, Dover Publications, New York, 1966
  • G.S.Brady, Materials Handbook, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1971 Comment: p. 260
  • Ralph Mayer, A Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1969 (also 1945 printing)
  • Theodore J. Reinhart, 'Glossary of Terms', Engineered Plastics, ASM International, 1988
  • Richard S. Lewis, Hawley's Condensed Chemical Dictionary, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 10th ed., 1993
  • Walter C. McCrone, John Gustave Delly, The Particle Atlas, W. McCrone Associates, Chicago, IV, 1972
  • Hoechst Celanese Corporation, Dictionary of Fiber & Textile Technology (older version called Man-made Fiber and Textile Dictionary, 1965), Hoechst Celanese Corporation, Charlotte NC, 1990
  • 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
  • Matt Roberts, Don Etherington, Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: a Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1982