For those of us suffering from oily complexions, skin care can feel like an endless search for grease-busting ingredients that will leave us perfectly mattified and free of shine. Generally speaking, a good cleanser is key when it comes to busting and balancing oil, removing debris that cause pores to clog, and cutting through lipid molecules on the face to reduce overall shine.
The issue is, many of the conventional cleansers out there rely on a category of ingredients known as surfactants. A shortened form of ‘surface active agents,’ surfactants in chemically-based synthetic skincare products can leave you with an ultra dry dermis sans its natural protective mechanisms. That said, there are natural surfactants out there, which you’ll find on the ingredient lists of natural face cleansers–but you have to know what you’re looking for. With a little surfactant mini lesson, you’ll be able to recognize the good, the bad, and the drying, and choose your face cleanser accordingly.What You Should Know About Chemical Surfactants
Chemical surfactants are designed to reduce the surface tension at the juncture between oil molecules and water molecules. As a chemical group, they are both ‘hydrophilic’ (meaning they can dissolve in water) and ‘lipophilic’ (meaning they can dissolve in oil). With these properties, they effectively produce the ever-popular ‘foaming’ effect in a variety of products.
Often taking the form of detergents in everything from dish soap to face wash, they work by drawing oil and water together, such that when the product is rinsed away, the oil is eliminated too. A key point here is that they represent a large group of ingredients in a wide variety of products, so their use and application varies: for some products, they act as a detergent, for others as an emulsifier, for others as a solubilizer. In other words, they’re a group of chemicals designed to interface oil with water, within a range of applications.The Surfactants That You (and Your Skin) Should Steer Clear Of
Specifically, when it comes to surfactants used in cosmetics designed to be applied to the face, there are a few ingredients with ultra harmful side effects.
Sulfates are typically used in foaming and cleansing agents, popular because they’re inexpensive and effective at generating an ultra ‘sudsy’ appearance in products. The most common sulfates, which are added to both hair and skin care products, are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth ether sulfate (SLES). While both of these ingredients achieve a super ‘clean’ feel immediately after use — think tight and shiny skin — they’re well known to cause skin and eye irritation, and can contribute to fine lines and acne over time.
Sulfates completely strip the skin’s natural lipid barrier, resulting in increased H2O evaporation, limited protection from exterior irritants, and serious dryness. In effect, they’re way too efficient at removing oil from your skin, leaving you with a lipid deficiency that will exacerbate aging and irritation.
Some surfactants aren’t just about cleansing; another group of the chemical, called Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), are designed to allow formulas to penetrate deep into your pores (specifically formulas with both H2O and lipids in them). PEGs are also used as emulsifiers and stabilizers, keeping the consistency of conventional cosmetics ‘lotion-like’ and ‘creamy,’ while enhancing penetration of any other ingredients that may be in the formula.
So here’s the issue with PEGs: they facilitate the absorption of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals into your skin. They help traffic things like heavy metals and pollutants like ethylene oxide into your pores, causing everything from hormonal imbalances to increased risk of certain kinds of cancer.What About Natural Surfactants?
The good news is, there are a variety of plant based surfactants that you can find in natural face cleansers. These natural surfactants will have the same oil-busting or emulsifying effects, without compromising your internal and epidermal health.
Potassium cocoate originates from coconut oil, specifically from the fatty acids present in coconut oil. It works effectively as an emulsifier and grease reducer in facial products, working to dissolve and slough away dirt and excess lipids. It’s derived from the saponification of coconut oil, and as a healthy substitute for soaps and detergents, will leave your skin less stripped, more balanced, and infinitely more nourished than harsh chemical surfactants. Since it’s derived from whole coconut, it also contains glycerin: a natural humectant which will help your skin retain adequate moisture.
Another natural surfactant to opt for is saponified coconut oil, which is produced through coconut oil being broken down by sodium. Essentially, the process of saponification describes breaking down a fat with a chemical that is alkaline (like salt). The result is a natural surfactant which can rid your skin of dirt, oil and other pollutants, while also delivering a dose of reparative vitamin E (naturally present in coconut oil). Saponified coconut oil provides a much lighter lather then chemical surfactants (no big bubbles or suds), but it’s ultimately way less drying. This natural surfactant respects your skin’s natural lipid barrier and PH balance, for more self-regulating and self-cleansing skin over time.
Finally, decyl glucoside is another smart chemical surfactant substitute. It’s biodegradable, derived from corn and coconuts, and obtained from 100% raw materials (and features as the key cleansing ingredient in our Nopal Cactus Cleanser). It functions as an ultra mild surfactant, cutting through oil and working into a lather, while remaining gentle enough to use on fragile skin (and even on baby skin). It possesses moisture binding properties (like PEGS, but not carcinogenic), meaning that its topical application can help skin feel soft and smooth, with increased moisture retention and H2O.
The takeaway? When it comes to finding a facial cleanser that keeps your complexion balanced, surfactants might be part of the puzzle. Just make sure you’re steering clear of high-risk chemical surfactants (which will leave you with serious dryness), and towards a natural cleanser (the gentler and the more plant-based, the better)!