Surfactants, Household Detergents & Their Raw Materials
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Published: June 2010
Innovation in laundry detergents over the past few years has focused on performance, ecological benefits, fragrance and keeping up with washing machine technology. A key trend is the recent shift to smaller packs of detergent concentrate. Front loader and high-efficiency machines, which use significantly less water than the traditional top-loader machines, continue to penetrate the market. Some companies (e.g., Evonik) aim to increase the solids content of household care and personal care products, thus reducing freight, storage and recycling costs. Average wash temperatures have dropped from around 60°C to 30–40°C, and in some parts of the world to as low as 20°C. In order for detergents to work at lower wash temperatures, more complex surfactant formulations, often using a carefully balanced blend of components, are needed. The major issue for detergent manufacturers in recent years has been managing higher raw material costs, while minimizing any price increases to their customers in a highly competitive and depressed consumer market. Other important considerations have been providing greater convenience to consumers in the use of the detergent products and maintaining minimum performance standards while reducing levels of surfactants to minimize their own cost increases.
Laundry detergents, both powders and liquids, and hand dishwashing liquids account for about 95% of the consumption of surfactants in household detergents. The large detergent manufacturers produce a portion of their own surfactants from purchased raw materials, but frequently buy some from surfactant suppliers.
The following graph shows consumption of surfactants for household detergents by major region:
The household detergents market is mature in North America, Western Europe and Japan, and rapid growth is limited to developing countries including China and India. The growing popularity of liquid laundry detergents as opposed to powders has affected the consumption of surfactants, as the former generally use much higher surfactant levels per washload. Consumer habits also differ somewhat from region to region. In the United States, more frequent washing of clothes results in greater per capita consumption of surfactants and detergents than in either Western Europe or Japan. Consumers are increasingly buying detergents at mass merchandising outlets that reflect their preference for low-cost products. In order to gain shelf space at these outlets, detergent manufacturers have to reduce their prices and thus must reduce their costs by lowering surfactant levels.
Higher surfactant prices in 2005–2008, reflecting higher raw material costs (i.e., crude oil, natural gas, and natural oils) resulted in efforts to offset these cost increases by lowering surfactant levels. After a period of high prices in 2008, surfactant prices started to level off or in some cases slightly decline in the summer of 2008. In 2009, compared with many other chemicals, surfactant prices did not drop much, despite sharp declines in crude oil and plant oils, the ultimate sources of surfactants.