Surfactants are amphiphilic chemicals, combining a hydrophilic as well as a hydrophobic moiety in one molecule. The hydrophobic moiety of most surfactants are alkyl chains typically in the range from 8 to 18 carbon atoms. Such alkyl chains can be obtained from various raw materials, (i.e. vegetable oils, fats, and other types of biomass, as well as from mineral oil) (raw materials sourcing). Consequently, mineral oil and renewable raw materials are both widely applied as raw materials in the manufacturing process. Since neither of these materials can be directly used as an ingredient in detergents, chemical as well as biotechnological processes need to be applied to convert these raw materials into high performance surfactants. In principle there is no difference between surfactants based on mineral oil or renewable raw materials, with respect to their technical properties, nor with regard to their ecological or toxicological profile.
Although surfactants in general are soluble in water, they may also bio-accumulate in the fat tissue of organisms, depending on their hydrophilic/hydrophobic balance. This issue is perceived to be highly relevant for aquatic organisms, since they are potentially exposed over a prolonged period of time to surfactants dissolved in surface waters. In legislation, the water/ octanol partition coefficient (log Kow), a physico-chemical parameter that can be determined under standard laboratory test conditions, plays a key role in predicting the potential of a chemical to accumulate in organisms. However, due to the amphiphilic character of surfactants, the measurement of log Kow values for surfactants requires a lot of consideration. Hence fundamental research is needed to gain methodological expertise.