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How Do Detergents Affect Plants?

There are hundreds, if not thousands of detergents (the common name for the more general term "surfactants"), and of course there are thousands of kinds of plants, so generalizations are difficult to make. As a class of substances, almost all detergents have in common that they lower the surface tension of the liquid (usually water) in which they are mixed. You have to be careful about using the term "dissolved" because most detergents (surfactants) are not truly dissolved. They form aggregates (called micelles) in the water, not individual molecules. The lowered surface tension allows the solution of water/surfactant to "wet", i.e. to "spread" out on the plant leaves, so that some active ingredient (for example insecticide) to more easily cover the entire leaves and stems of the plant. This would be useful to enhance the effectiveness of the active ingredient.

Vince Calder

The following links may be helpful.

Anthony R. Brach, PhD
Missouri Botanical Garden
c/o Harvard University Herbaria

Click here to return to the Botany Archives

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