Membrane-lytic actions of sulphonated methyl ester surfactants and implications to bactericidal effect and cytotoxicity

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • Authors:
  • Fang Pan
  • Zongyi Li
  • Haoning Gong
  • Jordan T. Petkov
  • Jian R. Lu


Surfactants are multifunctional molecules widely used in personal care and healthcare formulations to cleanse, help disperse active ingredients (e.g., forming emulsions) and stabilise products. With increasing demands on improving biosafety, there is now mounting pressure to understand how different surfactants elicit toxicities at molecular and cellular levels. This work reports the membrane-lytic behaviour of a group of sulphonated methyl ester (SME) surfactants together with representative conventional surfactants. All surfactants displayed the clear rise of lysis of the model lipid bilayer membranes around their CMCs, but the two ionic surfactants SDS and C12TAB even caused measurable lysis below their CMCs, with membrane-lytic actions increasing with monomer concentration. Furthermore, whilst ionic and nonionic surfactants could achieve full membrane lysis once above their CMCs, this ability was weak from the SME surfactants and decreased with increasing the acyl chain length. In contrast to the conventional anionic surfactants such as SDS and SLES, the protein solubilizing capability of the SME surfactants was also low. On the other hand, MTT assays against 3T3 fibroblast cells and human chondrocyte cells revealed high toxicity from SDS and C12TAB against the other surfactants studied, but the difference between SME and the rest of conventional surfactants was small. Similar behaviour was also observed in their bactericidal effect against E. coli and S. aureus. The trend is broadly consistent with their membrane-lytic behaviour, indicating little selectivity in their cytotoxicity and bactericidal action. These results thus reveal different toxicities implicated from different surfactant head groups. Increase in acyl chain length as observed from SME surfactants could help improve surfactant biocompatibility.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)18-27
JournalJournal of Colloid and Interface Science
Early online date10 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018