Nonionic surfactants are often used in laundry and dishwasher detergents as a cleaning agent. They are also used in cosmetics as emulsifiers, conditioning agents and solubilizing agents and to boost foam formation in cleansing products. Anionic surfactants are often used in laundry detergent, household cleaners, personal cleansing products, hand dishwashing detergents, and deodorants and antiperspirants because of their ability to clean surfaces and create suds.
Examples of anionic surfactants used in personal cleansing products include sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. Examples of nonionic surfactants include cocamidopropylamine oxide, polysorbate esters, and cetyl or stearyl alcohol.
Two other classes of surfactants include cationic, which have an overall positive charge, and amphoteric, which can act as both a cationic and anionic chemical compound. Cationic surfactants are often used in fabric softeners, detergents that soften fabric and in conditioning cosmetics. Examples include quaternized ammonium compounds, alkylimidazolines and amines. Amphoteric surfactants are often used in personal cleansing products and household cleaning products and in cosmetics as a secondary surfactant to help boost foam formation and reduce skin irritation. Examples include sodium lauriminodipropionate, imidazolines and betaines.
Surfactants are also often used in insecticides, ski wax, toothpastes, paints and adhesives because of their wetting, dispersing, emulsifying, foaming or anti-foaming properties. Surfactants are also used by scientists to help manipulate the growth of quantum dots, in pipelines to reduce liquid drag and in oil wells to mobilize oil.