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Role of Surfactant in Emulsion Stabilization: A Comprehensive Overview

Role of Surfactant in Emulsion: Emulsions are an extremely versatile class of materials with applications in various fields such as food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and oil recovery. An emulsion consists of two immiscible liquid phases such as oil and water that mix, with one phase dispersed into droplets within another continuous phase – usually water.

Surfactants, surface-active agents are essential in the formation and stabilization of emulsions; this article offers an in-depth exploration of their physicochemical properties, mechanisms of action applications as well as recent developments.

Role of Surfactant in Emulsion Stabilization
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Role of Surfactant in Emulsion Stabilization

What is Emulsion?

Emulsions, heterogeneous mixtures of immiscible liquids, are widely utilized across many industries such as food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Surfactants play an integral part in their formation and stabilization by lowering surface tension and preventing coalescence; this article investigates their physicochemical properties, mechanisms of action and applications across industries as well as recent advances in surfactant design technology for use with emulsion-based technologies.

Physicochemical Properties of Surfactants

Surfactants are amphiphilic molecules with both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (oil-loving) moieties, known as the hydrophilic-lipophilic balance (HLB). Their hydrophilic part typically comprises polar or ionic headgroups while their lipophilic half typically features long hydrocarbon chains. HLB measures the ratio between these characteristics to determine the appropriate surfactant for specific emulsion applications.

Mechanisms of Action

Surfactants play an essential role in stabilizing emulsions through three mechanisms.

a) Reduction of interfacial tension

Surfactants play an integral part in lowering interfacial tension in emulsions, helping their formation and stabilization. Surfactants are amphiphilic molecules, meaning that they dissolve in both oil and water immiscible phases by aligning their lipophilic and hydrophilic moieties with each phase.

This arrangement disrupts intermolecular forces between molecules in each phase, significantly lowering interfacial tension and making droplet formation energetically favorable, with reduced energy input required for emulsification. Furthermore, reduced interfacial tension enhances long-term stability of an emulsion by decreasing driving forces for droplet coalescence..

b) Formation of Interfacial Films

Surfactants can help stabilize emulsions by creating protective interfacial films at the oil-water interface to lower interfacial tension and stabilize an emulsion’s stability. As surfactant molecules bind with an interface, their hydrophilic headgroups will migrate towards the water phase while their lipophilic tails interact with oil phase molecules.

This arrangement creates a robust interfacial film that encases dispersed droplets and acts as a physical barrier against their coalescence. Stability of interfacial film depends on factors like surfactant concentration, molecular structure and interactions with other components within an emulsion.

By creating dense and stable interfacial films over time, surfactants help maintain structural integrity of an emulsion over time..

c) Electrostatic and Steric Stabilization

Surfactants may also improve emulsion stability through electrostatic and steric mechanisms, further increasing its stability. Ionic surfactants with charged headgroups create electrostatic repulsion between droplets, preventing them from colliding together and coalescing.

Repulsive forces are particularly useful for stabilizing emulsions with small droplet sizes, where their surface area-to-volume ratio is high.

Nonionic surfactants provide additional stabilization by creating a hydrated layer around each droplet and acting like an umbrella over them. This layer is created when polymeric headgroups of surfactant attract water molecules, creating an impervious barrier against droplet collision and coalescence.

Electrostatic and steric stabilization mechanisms contribute to long-term stability of emulsions, guaranteeing their performance across various applications.

Types of Surfactant

Surfactants can be classified into four main categories based on their polar headgroup’s charge: anionic, cationic, nonionic, and amphoteric. Here are some examples of each type:

1.Anionic surfactants

Anionic surfactants have a negatively charged polar headgroup. They are widely used in various applications, such as detergents, personal care products, and emulsion stabilizers. Examples of anionic surfactants include:

a) Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): A common ingredient in shampoos, toothpaste, and household cleaning products.

b) Sodium dodecylbenzenesulfonate (SDBS): Often used in laundry detergents and dishwashing liquids.

c) Alkyl ether sulfates (AES): Used in shampoos, shower gels, and liquid soaps. Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is a common example.

d) Alkyl polyglucosides (APGs): A class of biodegradable surfactants derived from glucose and fatty alcohols, used in eco-friendly cleaning products and personal care items.

2. Cationic surfactants

Cationic surfactants have a positively charged polar headgroup. They are commonly used as fabric softeners, hair conditioners, and antimicrobial agents. Examples of cationic surfactants include:

a) Benzalkonium chloride (BAC): A disinfectant and preservative used in pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and cleaning agents.

b) Cetyltrimethylammonium chloride (CTAC): A surfactant used in hair conditioners and fabric softeners.

c) Behentrimonium chloride: A conditioning agent used in hair care products, such as conditioners and leave-in treatments.

3. Nonionic surfactants

Nonionic surfactants do not carry any charge on their polar headgroup. They are compatible with other surfactant types and are less sensitive to water hardness, making them suitable for various applications. Examples of nonionic surfactants include:

a) Polysorbates: Commonly used as emulsifiers in food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. Polysorbate 80 is a well-known example.

b) Fatty alcohol ethoxylates: Used in detergents, cleaners, and personal care products. Examples include laureth-7 and ceteareth-20.

c) Sorbitan esters: Used as emulsifiers and stabilizers in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Examples include sorbitan oleate and sorbitan stearate.

4. Amphoteric (or zwitterionic) surfactants

Amphoteric surfactants have both positive and negative charges on their polar headgroup, depending on the pH of the solution. They exhibit mildness and are often used in personal care products, such as shampoos and body washes. Examples of amphoteric surfactants include:

a) Cocamidopropyl betaine: A common ingredient in shampoos, body washes, and facial cleansers due to its mildness and foaming properties.

b) Lauryl hydroxysultaine: Used in personal care products for its mild cleansing and foaming properties.

c) Lecithin: A naturally occurring phospholipid derived from soybeans or egg yolks, used as an emulsifier in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.

Applications of Surfactant-Stabilized Emulsions

Surfactants play a pivotal role in stabilizing emulsions across various industries, such as:

a)Food industry: Surfactants can be used in the production of salad dressing, mayonnaise, whipped cream and ice cream where they provide stability and enhanced textures of these products.

b) Cosmetics and Personal Care: Surfactants play an integral part in formulating creams, lotions, and makeup by providing homogenous product composition and supporting active ingredient delivery.

c) Pharmaceuticals: Surfactants are utilized in drug delivery systems such as Nanoemulsion and liposomes to improve solubility and bioavailability of poorly water-soluble drugs.

d) Oil Recovery: Surfactant-stabilized emulsions can be utilized as enhanced oil recovery techniques to mobilize trapped oil and improve extraction efficiency.

Surfactant science research has produced novel surfactants with enhanced performance and environmental compatibility, creating new designs for surfactant products such as those mentioned below. Recent advancements and emerging trends include:

a) Biodegradable Surfactants

As environmental and biocompatibility requirements increase, so too have biodegradable surfactants derived from renewable resources, like plant oils and polysaccharides. Surfactants made of renewable materials provide an eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-based surfactants that may accumulate in the environment and have negative ecological consequences.

Biodegradable surfactants such as alkyl polyglucosides derived from glucose and fatty alcohols and rhamnolipids produced by microorganisms are examples of biodegradable surfactants that exhibit comparable or superior performance to traditional surfactants when it comes to emulsion stabilization and interfacial activity; while also being less toxic and readily biodegradable..

b) Stimuli-responsive surfactants

Stimuli-responsive surfactants are designed to respond to external stimuli like pH levels, temperatures or light intensity by altering their structures in response. Molecular conformations changes can lead to altered surfactant properties, including solubility, aggregation or interfacial activity – and thus alter emulsion stability.

By employing stimuli-responsive surfactants, it becomes possible to produce “smart” emulsions with precise control over stability and release properties – an advantage in applications like drug delivery, food processing and environmental remediation.

Examples of such stimuli-responsive surfactants are thermoresponsive poly(N-isopropylacrylamide)-based surfactants as well as pH-responsive zwitterionic surfactants..

c) Surfactant-polymer hybrids

Combining surfactants and polymers can create hybrid materials with enhanced emulsion stabilization capabilities and tailored properties to specific applications. Surfactant-polymer hybrids may either be physical mixtures of surfactants and polymers or covalently bonded structures like graft or block copolymers.

Their synergistic effects lead to improved interfacial activity, enhanced steric stabilization and electrostatic stabilization capabilities, as well as adjustable rheological properties for tailoring purposes in drug delivery, cosmetics or oil recovery applications. Surfactant-polymer hybrids have found applications across diverse fields like drug delivery, cosmetics or oil recovery..

d) Bio-inspired Surfactants

Researchers are taking their cue from natural systems such as cell membranes and proteins in creating bio-inspired surfactants with unique properties, including self-assembly and adaptability.

These innovative surfactants can mimic biological systems by mimicking their behavior – for instance forming vesicles, micelles, or lipid bilayers – as well as responding to changes in their environment.

By incorporating bio-inspired surfactants into emulsion-based materials, advanced, multifunctional systems with applications in biotechnology, medicine, and materials science can be created.

Examples of such bio-inspired surfactants include peptide-based surfactants that self-assemble into nanostructures as well as natural sources like phospholipids or glycolipids derived lipid-like surfactants derived from.


Surfactants play an essential role in the formation and stabilization of emulsions across industries, with wide-ranging applications. An understanding of their physicochemical properties as well as their mechanisms of action is vital for designing efficient systems utilizing them.

Green surfactants and stimuli-responsive surfactants offer new opportunities to address traditional system challenges while providing opportunities to develop innovative materials and technologies – continuing research in this area could bring further breakthroughs to emulsion science with far reaching ramifications across various fields of application.

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