Hanson, Allen L. Formerly, Department of Chemistry, Saint Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.
Last reviewed:March 2020
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- Synthetic detergents
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A formulated product used to enhance the cleansing action of water. Detergents are used as domestic and industrial laundry and dish-washing products (see illustration) and cleaners. A detergent is an emulsifier, which penetrates and breaks up the oily film that binds dirt particles, and a wetting agent, which helps them to float off. Emulsifier molecules have an oil-like nonpolar portion which is drawn into the oil, and a polar group that is water-soluble; by bridging the oil-water interface, they break the oil into dispersible droplets (emulsion). As a surfactant, a detergent decreases the surface tension of water to help it penetrate soil. Biodegradability is essential for detergents, which ensures that components of detergents will be broken down by bacterial action to remove them from the environment. See also: Biodegradation; Emulsion; Surface tension; Surfactant
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