Article by: Perry Romanowski

Crude oil is pretty amazing stuff.   It’s a mixture of a variety of hydrocarbon molecules and can be used to create any number of organic molecules.  In that sentence the term “organic” refers to organic chemistry as in containing Hydrogen and Carbon atoms.  These hydrocarbon molecules have anywhere from 5 to 40 Carbon atoms and come in all different types of structure.

While crude oil is a fascinating material there are a number of problems with using it.  First, there is a limited supply.  Once we’ve used it all up, there won’t be any left.  And there is already a notion that we have hit the peak level and there is less in the ground than we have used.  Some estimate that by 2040 we will only be able to produce 20% of what we produce now.  That will not be good news for anyone.  That’s why it’s important for industries like the cosmetic industry to start reducing our reliance on petroleum based ingredients.  Eventually, they’ll be gone.

Fortunately, most of the ingredients used in the cosmetic industry can be produced from renewable plant sources.  Pretty much anything that can be made with hydrocarbon chains from C8 to C22 can be made using plant sources.  The way you typically make a surfactant is you start with an oil with a known distribution of straight chain hydrocarbons (like crude oil or a plant oil), chemically react it with the appropriate reactants and make your surfactant.

So, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can be made by blending petroleum based C12 fatty acids or it can be made using Coconut derived C12 fatty acids.  Cetyl alcohol could be made from petroleum or from Palm oil.

Here is a list of some natural materials that can be made into surfactants

1.  Soybean oil – In fact, here’s a new soybean oil based surfactant.
2.  Coconut oil
3.  Palm oil
4.  Sunflower oil
5.  Meadowfoam Seed oil
6.  Corn oil
7.  Castor oil
8.  Hemp oil
9.  Sugar

Of course there are lots more sources but this is a good start.  Perhaps we’ll expand this post in the future.




  1. Avatar

    I’m allergic to coconut and looking for non-coconut-derived surfactants, which has been difficult for someone just learning about cosmetic/skin care chemistry. Any advice?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Stay away from anything called “natural” since most of them are coconut, palm or corn based. Using something like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate may or may not be a problem. It depends on the source. Look for glucosides or taurates as the main detergent.

  2. Avatar
    Ann Coppola

    Mr. Romanowski: Are there any natural surfactants that can be used for products that are taken internally? I am trying to find a way to make hemp oil water soluble and would appreciate any input you may have.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      I don’t know. I formulate cosmetics not products that are meant to be ingested. But someone in our forum might know so you could post in there.

  3. Avatar
    Luis Cuevas

    It would be helpful if we could make our own surfactants using easy methods at home or small labs

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Perhaps but this would require knowledge of organic chemistry and some special distillation and refulx equipment. It’s much more complicated than simply formulating.

      1. Avatar
        Miser Happyfeet

        Isnt organic chemistry taught in school these days? Whats advancements in technology for, by this point in industrial equivalency shouldnt every household have a basic home chemistry lab next to the kitchen stove?

        1. Avatar
          Perry Romanowski

          Ha. No, organic chemistry is not taught to many people in school. Just chemists.

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