Fatty Alcohols

Last Updated on February 15, 2024 by Nasir Hanif

Fatty Alcohols are Ingredients in Many Cleaning Products

The human race has been at war with the cleaning products it uses for over a hundred years. Today, natural fatty alcohols may be a significant factor in winning that war. 

Since ancient times, chemical additives have been used to wash textiles with water. Various chemicals have been tried and adopted, only to be abandoned when a negative aspect of their use was discovered. 

Phosphates were an effective surfactant but became an environmental concern in the 1950s. They were the subject of bans in many countries in later years. Phosphates make excellent laundry cleaners, but they’re also a cause of eutrophication. Eutrophication is the process of enrichment of an entire body of water with nitrogen and phosphorus. A common example of eutrophication is algal blooms in lakes and ponds. These blooms can starve the water of oxygen and destroy the biosystem in a body of water.  

Ever since the effects of phosphates became known, soap and detergent manufacturers have paid a lot more attention to the effects of the ingredients of their cleaning products. Manufacturers are constantly looking for cleaning ingredients that offer a softer and gentler way to clean. Although lye may always be a basic ingredient of any product labeled as soap, the search goes on for more effective ingredients for their products.

Manufacturers also want to use ingredients that are kind to the environment, having learned a valuable lesson from the effect of phosphates on the environment. 

Adoption of Fatty Alcohols

Nowadays, many manufacturers have adopted the use of these natural alcohols derived from vegetable oils. They have a chemical composition that features an even number of carbon atoms per molecule, which makes them an effective surfactant for detergent products.

As the uses of these natural products expand, these alcohols can often be found in a range of products, including:

  • Detergents
  • Fragrances
  • Flavorings
  • Foam stabilizers
  • Lubricants
  • Cosmetics
  • Shampoo
  • Plasticizers
  • Solvents
  • Paints and coatings
  • Printing inks

Renewable Resource

Fatty alcohols have been a relatively recent discovery, only becoming available in the early 1900s. They were obtained by the reduction of wax esters with sodium in the early days of their use. This process was called the Bouveault-Blanc reduction process. Later in the 1930s, catalytic hydrogenation allowed the conversion of fatty acid esters, using tallow, into the alcohols. 

In the 40s and 50s, petrochemicals became another source when the polymerization of ethylene was perfected. This led to the development of synthetic fatty alcohols. 

The traditional sources of the alcohols have remained vegetable oils. The alcohols are obtained from the triglycerides (fatty acid triesters), which make up the majority of the oil.   

The alcohols, up to a certain chain length, are biodegradable, with certain chain lengths biodegrading completely within ten days. With this promising news and more research being done on the effects of the alcohols. Manufacturers are becoming more confident that they may have discovered the ideal surfactant for many products. 

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