Alcohol ethoxylates (AE) are a major class of non-ionic surfactants composed of an alkyl chain (usually 12 to 15 carbon atoms) combined with some ethylene oxide units (3 to 14). They are widely used in household detergents, cleaners and personal care products.

  • Function and benefits

    What is its function and benefits?
    Alcohol ethoxylates (AE) are a surfactant or surface active agent which is a substance that is used to change the surface tension of water to assist cleansing, wetting surfaces, foaming and emulsifying (the suspension of one liquid evenly within another). As non-ionic surfactants, AE do not have an electrical charge, which makes them resistant to water hardness deactivation. (Ref: Cleanright) As non-ionic surfactants, they are excellent grease removers that are used in laundry products, household cleaners and hand dishwashing liquids.
    Alcohol ethoxylates (AE) have many desirable characteristics such as low to moderate foaming ability, superior cleaning of man-made fibres and tolerance of water hardness (Ref: HERA).

    How does it work?
    As a surfactant, alcohol ethoxylates (AE), when dissolved in water, give a product the ability to remove dirt from surfaces such as the human skin, textiles, and other solids. Alcohol ethoxylates is responsible for the steric hindrance reaction which prevents soil from redepositing on fabrics during the wash.
    To know more about surfactants, visit its definition in the SIB Glossary.

  • Chemical structure and composition

    Alcohol Ethoxylates non-ionic surfactants

    The alcohol ethoxylates (AE) family can be defined to be of the basic structure Cx-yAEn. The subscript following the ‘C’ indicates the range of carbon chain units. Alcohol Ethoxylates (AE) with carbon unit range between C8 to C18 are most commonly used in household detergent products. Further, AE contain an ethylene oxide (E) chain attached to the alcohol. The degree of ethylene oxide polymerization is indicated by a subscript which indicates the average number of ethylene oxide units. In household products the average ethylene oxide chain length commonly ranges between 3 and 12 units.
    Two principle structures of AE present in household cleaning products are presented below. (Ref: HERA)

  • Product / Category: where is it used

    By far, the greatest use of alcohol ethoxylates is in domestic detergents, household cleaners, and personal care products such as shampoos. The table below lists household cleaning applications and typical finished product concentration ranges of all AE used in household products. (Ref: HERA)
    Household applications and finished product concentrations of the different alcohol ethoxylates (AE) (AISE, Unpublished data)

    The greatest use of AE is in domestic detergents, household cleaners, and personal care products
  • Ingredient safety and information

    AISE-CEFIC published a human and environmental risk assessment for Alcohol Ethoxylates. Alcohol Ethoxylates (AE) are readily biodegradable under aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Total measured removal rates in wastewater treatment plants vary from 99.6 to 99.9%.
    The acute toxicity of AE is dependent on the alkyl chain length and the number of ethylene oxide units. Toxicity to aquatic organisms, measured by EC50, ranges from very toxic (<1 mg/L) to harmful (between 10 and 100 mg/L). NOEC values range from 42 to 380.5 μg/L.
    Read the full risk assessment in

  • References

    • Belanger, S.E. et al., 2000, Responses of Aquatic Communities To 25-6 Alcohol Ethoxylate In Model Stream Ecosystems. Aquatic Toxicology, 48, pp.135-150.
    • van de Plassche, E.J. et al., 1999, Predicted No-Effect Concentrations and Risk Characterization of Four Surfactants: Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulfonate, Alcohol Ethoxylates, Alcohol Ethoxylated Sulfates, and Soap. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 18(11), pp.2653-2663.
    • Feijtel, T.C.J., Struijs, J., Matthijs, E., 1999, Exposure modeling of detergent surfactants—prediction of 90th-percentile concentrations in the Netherlands. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 18, pp.2645–2652.
    • Matthijs, E., Holt, M.S., Kiewiet, A., Rijs, G.B.J., 1999, Environmental monitoring for linear alkylbenzene sulfonate, alcohol ethoxylate, alcohol ethoxy sulfate, alcohol sulfate, and soap. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 18, pp.2634–2644.
    • McAvoy, D.C. et al, 1998, Removal of Alcohol Ethoxylates, Alkyl Ethoxylate Sulfates, and Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonates in Wastewater Treatment. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 17(9), pp.1705-1711.
    • Fendinger, N.J., Begley, W.M., Mcavoy, D.C., Eckhoff, W.S., 1995, Measurement of alkyl ethoxylate surfactants in natural waters. Environmental Science & Technology, 29, pp.856–63.
    • Belanger, S.E., Meiers, E.M. and Bausch, R.G., 1995, Direct and Indirect Ecotoxicological Effects of Alkyl Sulfate and Alkyl Ethoxysulfate on Macroinvertebrates in Stream Mesocosms. Aquatic Toxicology, 33, pp.65-87.
    • ; HERA, 2009, Human & Environmental Risk Assessment on ingredients of European household cleaning products, Alcohol Ethoxylates. [online] Available at: [Accessed November 17, 2011]
    • Cleanright website:

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