Soap, generated by the alkaline hydrolysis of natural fats and oils, has been used for centuries as a major surfactants in detergent and cleaning products. In the 1930s, mineral oil surfaced as an additional raw material base providing access to new, high performing (synthetic) type of surfactants. At the same time, the first surfactants based on renewable fatty alcohols - not fatty acids like in soap - were manufactured on a commercial scale. Nowadays, mineral oil as well as renewable raw materials, are both utilised as raw materials in the manufacturing process and it is well recognised that these surfactants complement respectively substitute each other.
Palm kernel oil and coconut oil are the predominant renewable sources for the manufacturing of surfactants. Due to the surge in the palm oil industry, there is an increase in the capacity of detergent grade fatty alcohols based on palm kernel oil, that can be converted to various types of surfactants, while the production of coconut oil is stagnating . Recently, sugars were used as substrate for the biotechnological production of detergent grade alcohol by algae, although on a small scale.
With respect to their sustainability profile, there are major differences found in the ecological impact generated during the production and transportation of the raw materials. Life cycle assessment is the method of choice to generate data and compare the impact of each.