The world of sulfates

Surfactants & Co.: A small glossary of terms

You may feel the same way: more and more people want to find out more about a cosmetic product, but find they understand less and less about them. Terms, explanations and formulas are used that are reminiscent of long forgotten chemistry lessons. This is precisely the problem with evaluating the image of many products. We want to briefly explain some of these frequently used terms. We'll be brief, we promise.

Soap: it cleans. That's it. 

Shampoo: cleans, scents, protects, repairs, tested for safety and adverse reactions. According to Duden, it is a liquid for washing hair with a name with English origins. Originally from Hindi, an Indian language, whose meaning indicates “kneading/massaging”. In 1941, the term was included in the Duden German dictionary – done. 

Okay, that’s too short an explanation. But in relation to shampoos, it contains all the information required to make a well-informed purchase. In order to find the right shampoo for your needs, you also need to: try it out and test it.  No two people are the same. We know this very well from many years of experience. Some want in-depth information, others just want the basics. This piece is about the basics. If you want to take a longer, closer look at the world of sulfates, then check out our articles "Sparkling clean and beautifully foamy" and "Much more than whipping up foam".

Glossary of terms


Cosmetics products that can be rinsed off. Shampoo is one of them.

Glossary of terms


International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. There is an international agreement to use INCI names for consistency in labeling ingredients in cosmetic products. The sequence of listing the ingredients is determined by their proportion by weight, i.e. everything ≥ 1% is listed in decreasing order. Ingredients representing less than 1% may be listed in any sequence, after those with a concentration of 1% or more.

Glossary of terms

EU Cosmetics Regulation ((EC 1223/2009)

Defines very precisely which ingredients may and may not be used in cosmetic products. Safety, skin irritation, effectiveness and microbiological purity are tested and investigated. Consumer safety is the top priority. The thresholds that must be met if an ingredient is allowed to be used are very strict. Official checks on cosmetic products on sale also ensure they are completely harmless to health.

Glossary of terms


If a substance is lipophilic, it mixes or dissolves well in fats and oils, or can easily dissolve fats and oils.

Glossary of terms


A hydrophilic substance "loves" water and is water soluble.

Glossary of terms


By using these polymers, waxes and/or gums, also called rheology modifiers, the viscosity and spreadability of the end product are determined and created. They also increase the stability of the formulation.

Glossary of terms

Sensory amplifiers

The so-called sensory amplifiers are used to improve and optimize sensory effects. They are usually added to a formulation as a powder or silicone derivative to make the aesthetics and sensation on the skin as comfortable as possible, and to reduce stickiness and oiliness. The product will then feel velvety and silky.

Glossary of terms


While some care substances (e.g. cationic surfactants and polymers, proteins, cosmetic oils) repair external hair damage, at least temporarily, and tend to develop their effect on the hair surface and the cuticle layer, so-called microproteins are also often used in shampoos and conditioners. Examples are the products Gluadin® Kera-P LM and Nutrilan® KLM.

Due to their small size, they are able to penetrate deeply into the hair and build up an interaction with the hair's structures in order to strengthen them. What's more, thanks to their antioxidant properties, these hydrolyzed proteins are able to intercept free radicals that would otherwise damage the hair. Another protection is that protein hydrolysates reduce the binding of metal ions, such as copper, to the hair. These metal ions catalyze the formation of free radicals. The reduced binding to the hair creates fewer radicals on the hair surface and less damage to the hair.

Glossary of terms


International Organization for Standardization

Glossary of terms

In vivo test

Derived from the Latin "vivus", it means "from life". Reactions are tested on or in a living organism.

Glossary of terms


This is defined as the accumulation of substances/pollutants in organisms.

Glossary of terms

Aquatic toxicity

How harmful is a substance to the aquatic organism during short-term exposure (contact)? 

Glossary of terms


Can a surfactant be broken down biologically, i.e. do microorganisms such as bacteria manage to feed the surfactant back into biomass, salts and CO2?

Glossary of terms


"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This goal can only be achieved if each individual takes action." SOURCE: BUNDESTAG.DE (LOWER HOUSE OF GERMAN PARLIAMENT WEBSITE)

Glossary of terms


Surface active ingredients. They are considered to be active washing substances. They are available in both natural and synthetic forms. As agents, surfactants can cause substances that normally repel each other to mix, e.g. water and oil.

Glossary of terms

Sulfate surfactants

They are surfactants and members of the category of anionic surfactants. They stand out thanks to their excellent cleansing and foaming properties and are mainly produced from renewable raw materials (fatty alcohols from palm kernel oil and coconut oil). The two best-known sulfate surfactants that you will recognize from your cosmetic products are SLS (SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE) and SLES (SODIUM LAURYL ETHER SULFATE).

Glossary of terms

pH value

The pH value is used to determine whether a liquid solution is acidic or alkaline. The scale ranges from 0 (acidic) to 14 (alkaline/basic). Pure water has a neutral pH value of 7. Skin has an average pH of 5.5, i.e. slightly acidic.

Glossary of terms

Palm oil and palm kernel oil

Oil palms are the most efficient oil plants. They produce 32% of the world’s vegetable oil. Palm oil is extracted from the pulp, and palm kernel oil from the seeds of the oil palm. Palm kernel oil, like coconut oil, is also used for the production of ingredients for the cosmetics industry. The production of palm oil and palm kernel oil can lead to deforestation, a reduction in biodiversity and social conflicts. This is why it is important to cultivate palm (kernel) oil sustainably. Sustainable palm (kernel) oil is produced in a way that respects environmental and social standards, and can help reduce these negative effects. There are various certification systems for sustainable palm (kernel) oil, such as the RSPO seal of approval (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). 

Glossary of terms


A substance or preparation containing soaps and/or other surfactants intended for washing and cleaning processes. Detergents may be in any form (liquid, powder, paste, bar, cake, molded piece, shape, etc.) and marketed for or used in household, or institutional or industrial purposes. - SOURCE: REGULATION (EC) 648/2004 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL dated March 31, 2004

Glossary of terms


No shampoo whatsoever. Relying instead solely on water and other ingredients such as rye flour, baking powder, lemon juice, eggs, beer and even urine. Regular brushing is also necessary to ensure the body’s own sebum is well distributed in the hair. Massaging the scalp also plays a role here.

For more information, see our article here.

Glossary of terms


This process makes an ingredient more hydrophylic by adding an ethylene oxide molecule. The more often the process is repeated, the more hydrophylic (water-attracting) it becomes. One other side-effect: The surfactant becomes larger and generally better tolerated by the skin. These surfactants can be identified by the inclusion of "eth" or “ether”, for example sodium laureth (or lauryl ether) sulfate, SLES.