In Index Medicus and the United States National Library of Medicine, "surfactant" is reserved for the meaning pulmonary surfactant (see "alveoli" link below). For the more general meaning, "surface active agent" is the heading.
Surfactants reduce the surface tension of water by adsorbing at the liquid-gas interface. They also reduce the interfacial tension between oil and water by adsorbing at the liquid-liquid interface. Many surfactants can also assemble in the bulk solution into Aggregate#2s. Examples of such aggregates are vesicles and micelles. The concentration at which surfactants begin to form micelles is known as the critical micelle concentration or CMC. When micelles form in water, their tails form a core that can encapsulate an oil droplet, and their (ionic/polar) heads form an outer shell that maintains favorable contact with water. When surfactants assemble in oil, the aggregate is referred to as a reverse micelle. In a reverse micelle, the heads are in the core and the tails maintain favorable contact with oil. Surfactants are also often classified into four primary groups; anionic, cationic, non-ionic, and zwitterionic (dual charge).
Thermodynamics of the surfactant systems are of great importance, theoretically and practically. This is because surfactant systems represent systems between ordered and disordered states of matter. Surfactant solutions may contain an ordered phase (micelles) and a disordered phase (free surfactant molecules and/or ions in the solution).
Ordinary washing up (dishwashing) detergent, for example, will promote water penetration in soil, but the effect would only last a few days. However, many standard laundry detergent powders contain levels of chemicals such as sodium and boron, which can be damaging to plants and should not be applied to soils. Commercial soil wetting agents will continue to work for a considerable period, but they will eventually be degraded by soil micro-organisms. Some can, however, interfere with the life-cycles of some aquatic organisms, so care should be taken to prevent run-off of these products into streams, and excess product should not be washed down.
Surfactants play an important role in many practical applications and products, including:
A surfactant can be classified by the presence of formally charged groups in its head. A non-ionic surfactant has no charge groups in its head. The head of an ionic surfactant carries a net charge. If the charge is negative, the surfactant is more specifically called anionic; if the charge is positive, it is called cationic. If a surfactant contains a head with two oppositely charged groups, it is termed zwitterionic.
Some commonly encountered surfactants of each type include:
Some surfactants are known to be toxic to animals, ecosystems and humans, and can increase the diffusion of other environmental contaminants . Despite this, they are routinely deposited in numerous ways on land and into water systems, whether as part of an intended process or as industrial and household waste.