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Any of various surfactants (substances that reduce surface tension) used to dislodge dirt from soiled surfaces and retain it in suspension, allowing it to be rinsed away. The term usually refers to synthetic substances and excludes soaps. The characteristic features of a molecule of any detergent are a hydrophilic (water-attracting) end and a hydrophobic (oil-attracting) end. In ionic detergents, the hydrophilic property is conferred by the ionized part of the molecule. In nonionic detergents, hydrophilicity is based on the presence of multiple hydroxyl groups or other hydrophilic groups. Besides those used in water to clean dishes and laundry, detergents that function in other solvents are used in lubricating oils, gasolines, and dry-cleaning solvents to prevent or remove unwanted deposits. They are also used as emulsifying agents (seeemulsion).
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on detergent, visit Britannica.com.