Surfactants and experimental irritant contact dermatitis

Contact Dermatitis. 1995 Oct;33(4):217-25. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0536.1995.tb00470.x.


Surface-active agents (surfactants) are characterized by the possession of 2 different moieties, both polar and non-polar regions on the same molecule. Surfactants are broadly classified as anionic, cationic, amphoteric, or non-ionic, according to the nature of the hydrophile yielded in aqueous solution. In currently marketed household, personal, and industrial cleaners, anionic surfactants are the most common class because of their relative ability to solubilize fats and oils, lower the surface tension of aqueous solutions, or form microemulsions. Many surfactants elicit irritant reactions when applied to the skin, partially due to their relative ability to solubilize lipid membranes. Hence, surfactants have become important implements in skin irritation investigations. In general, the physicochemical properties of surfactants are a crucial factor in eliciting skin irritation. Anionic surfactants are broadly accepted as potent irritants to human and animal skin. Cationic surfactants are reputedly at least equally irritating, but more cytotoxic than anionic, while the irritation potential of non-ionic surfactants is considered the lowest. Such classification of innumerable surfactants is convenient and held in high practical esteem. however, the categorization does not permit the exact determination of irritation and cytotoxicity potential of each surfactant. Ranking of surfactant skin irritancy and cytotoxicity obtained by both in vitro and in vivo assays provides a helpful orientation for future work.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dermatitis, Irritant / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Surface-Active Agents / adverse effects*
  • Surface-Active Agents / classification


  • Surface-Active Agents