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A detergent is a surfactant or a mixture of surfactants having “cleaning properties in dilute solutions.” In common usage, “detergent” refers to alkylbenzenesulfonates, a family of compounds that are similar to soap but are less affected by hard water. In most household contexts, the term detergent by itself refers specifically to laundry detergent or dish detergent, as opposed to hand soap or other types of cleaning agents. Detergents are commonly available as powders or concentrated solutions. Detergents work because they are amphiphilic – partly hydrophilic (polar) and partly hydrophobic (non-polar). Their dual nature facilitates the mixture of hydrophobic compounds (like oil and grease) with water. Because air is not hydrophillic, detergents are also foaming agents to varying degrees. Completely non-polar solvents known as degreasers can also remove hydrophobic contaminants, but lacking polar elements may not dissolve in water. Detergents are classified into three broad groupings, depending on the electrical charge of the surfactants. Typical anionic detergents are alkylbenzenesulfonates. The alkylbenzene portion of these anions is lipophilic and the sulfonate is hydrophilic. Two varieties have been popularized, those with branched alkyl groups and those with linear alkyl groups. The former were largely phased out in economically advanced societies because they are poorly biodegradable. An estimated 6 billion kilograms of anionic detergents are produced annually for domestic markets. Bile acids, such as deoxycholic acid (DOC), are anionic detergents produced by the liver to aid in digestion and absorption of fats and oils.

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