How Does Detergent Break a Surface Tension?

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How Does Detergent Break a Surface Tension?
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Water Molecules and Surface Tension

Water holds unique properties which makes it "sticky" at the surface. Each individual water molecule has one large oxygen atom and two smaller hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen atoms hold a slightly negative charge, making the entire water molecule polar. These hydrogen atoms "reach out" to the oxygen atoms from other water molecules, creating temporary hydrogen bonds within the water.

Each water molecule experiences a pull from other water molecules from every direction, but water molecules at the surface do not have molecules above the surface of the water to pull at them. These water molecules have more pull from the water below than the surface above. This difference in force draws the water molecules at the surface together, forming a "skin" better known as surface tension.

Surface tension happens when the water molecules pull unevenly at the surface.
Surface tension happens when the water molecules pull unevenly at the surface.

Detergent and Soap

Detergent and soap share their properties, except the source of oil in them. Many soaps use natural fats while detergents use refined petroleum. Soap and detergent molecules have two ends which act as a bridge between water molecules and grease (fat) molecules. This allows the soap or detergent to grab onto the grease from a dirty dish and use the other end of the detergent molecule to latch on to water to be washed away.

How Does Detergent Break a Surface Tension?
Detergent Molecule

Detergent and Soap Break Surface Tension

Detergent molecules' two ends make it able to break through the surface tension of water. The end of the detergent molecule which attaches to fat (grease) tries to avoid being around water molecules. It is known as hydrophobic, meaning water fearing. By attempting to move away from the water molecules, the hydrophobic ends of the detergent molecules push up to the surface. This weakens the hydrogen bonds holding the water molecules together at the surface. The result is a break in the surface tension of the water.

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