Detergents and Plants
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.
The following links may be helpful.
Anthony R. Brach, PhD
Missouri Botanical Garden
c/o Harvard University Herbaria
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Update: June 2012