Crop Oil Concentrate vs. Non-Ionic Surfactant: What’s the Difference?


Apr 04, 2024

Crop oil concentrates (COC) and non-ionic surfactants (NIS) are both adjuvants used in agriculture to improve the effectiveness of pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. However, they differ in composition and function, which influences their use in various situations.

Crop Oil Concentrates


Crop oil concentrates are made up of a blend of a high-quality paraffinic oil and an emulsifier. The oil component helps the pesticide stick to the plant surface, while the emulsifier ensures the oil mixes well with water.


COCs are particularly effective in enhancing the penetration of herbicides through waxy or hairy leaf surfaces. They work by breaking down the cuticle barrier of the plant leaf, allowing the herbicide to enter the plant more easily.


COCs are often recommended for use with herbicides that require assistance penetrating the plant surface, especially in conditions where plants have developed a thick cuticle or in dry conditions.

Non-Ionic Surfactants 


Non-ionic surfactants are compounds that do not ionize in water, making them stable under a wide range of pH levels. They reduce the surface tension between the spray solution and the plant surface, improving the spreading and sticking of the solution.


NIS are used to increase the coverage and retention of spray solutions on plant surfaces. They help the pesticide to spread out and stick to the leaves rather than beading up and rolling off.


NIS are versatile and can be used with a wide range of pesticides. They are particularly useful when the goal is to maximize the coverage of the pesticide on the plant surface.

Download the Farmers First™ Adjuvant Guide, where you’ll learn about the full range of Farmers First™ adjuvants as well as the guidelines for pairing them with your spray program.

How to Choose Between Crop Oil Concentrates and Non-Ionic Surfactants 

The choice between using a crop oil concentrate or a non-ionic surfactant depends on the specific needs of the application, including the:

  1. Pesticide being used

  2. Target pest or weed

  3. Environmental conditions

1. Pesticide Type Considerations for Crop Oil Concentrates vs. Non-Ionic Surfactants

The type of pesticide being used is a critical factor in choosing between crop oil concentrates and non-ionic surfactants because these adjuvants work differently to enhance the effectiveness of pesticides. 


Many herbicides benefit from the addition of COCs or non-ionic surfactants to improve coverage and penetration of the herbicide into the plant. COCs are particularly useful with herbicides that require better penetration to reach their site of action within the plant, such as systemic herbicides. 

Non-ionic surfactants are often chosen for their ability to spread the herbicide evenly over the leaf surface, which is especially beneficial for contact herbicides.


The choice between COCs and non-ionic surfactants for insecticides can depend on the type of insect and the mode of action of the insecticide. COCs can enhance penetration through thicker insect cuticles or waxy surfaces, making them suitable for systemic insecticides. Non-ionic surfactants can improve coverage and adherence on the insect body, which is crucial for contact insecticides.


Fungicides often require thorough coverage of the plant surface to be effective. Non-ionic surfactants are commonly used with fungicides to ensure even distribution across the plant surfaces. However, COCs might be selected if the fungicide needs to penetrate more deeply into the plant tissue or if the plant has a waxy or hairy surface that impedes fungicide absorption.

Systemic vs. Contact Pesticides

Systemic pesticides are absorbed and moved within the plant to reach distant pest targets, requiring good penetration. COCs can enhance the uptake of systemic pesticides. Contact pesticides, on the other hand, kill pests by direct contact and require thorough and even coverage, which non-ionic surfactants can help achieve.

Pesticide Formulation

The formulation of the pesticide itself can influence the choice of adjuvant. Some formulations may already include surfactants, potentially reducing the need for additional surfactants. However, the addition of a COC might still be beneficial for enhancing penetration or adherence.

Plant Safety

Some crops are sensitive to oil-based adjuvants, which can cause phytotoxicity, especially under certain environmental conditions. In such cases, non-ionic surfactants might be preferred due to their lower risk of causing plant injury.

2. Target Pest or Weed Considerations for Crop Oil Concentrates vs. Non-Ionic Surfactants

Pests and weeds have varying characteristics, such as their surface properties, cuticle thickness, and mode of action, which can influence the choice of adjuvant. 

Surface Properties

Some pests or weeds have surfaces that are difficult for pesticides to adhere to or penetrate. COCs can help overcome this challenge by improving the spreading and wetting of the pesticide solution, allowing for better coverage and penetration. Non-ionic surfactants can also enhance coverage, but they are particularly effective when the target pest or weed has a more easily wettable surface.

Cuticle Thickness

The thickness of the cuticle, the outer protective layer of plants and insects, can affect the penetration of pesticides. COCs are often preferred when dealing with pests or weeds that have thicker cuticles, as they can help the pesticide penetrate through these barriers. Non-ionic surfactants are generally suitable for pests or weeds with thinner cuticles, where improved coverage and adherence are the primary goals.

Mode of Action

For systemic pesticides that need to be absorbed and translocated within the plant, COCs can enhance penetration and movement. Non-ionic surfactants are commonly used with contact pesticides that rely on direct contact with the pest or weed for efficacy.

Waxy or Hairy Surfaces

Some pests or weeds have waxy or hairy surfaces that can impede pesticide coverage and penetration. COCs are often effective in these situations, as they can help break through the wax or hair and improve pesticide uptake. Non-ionic surfactants can also assist in achieving better coverage on these surfaces.

3. Local Climate Considerations for Crop Oil Concentrates vs. Non-Ionic Surfactants

The local climate can influence how pesticides and adjuvants behave, including their evaporation rates, the potential for drift, and their ability to penetrate plant tissues. It’s important for growers to select adjuvants that not only complement the action of their chosen pesticides but also suit the environmental conditions of their specific location because it can help maximize the effectiveness of pesticide applications, reduce waste, and minimize environmental impact.


High temperatures can increase the volatility of some pesticides, leading to greater evaporation and potentially less effectiveness. Crop oil concentrates can help reduce evaporation, but in very hot climates, they might also increase the risk of plant burn. 

Non-ionic surfactants, which are less likely to cause burn, might be preferred in these conditions. Conversely, in cooler climates, COCs can help improve pesticide uptake by making plant surfaces more penetrable.


In areas with high humidity, the risk of fungal diseases can increase. COCs can help fungicides adhere better to plant surfaces and penetrate more effectively. However, in low humidity conditions, there's a higher risk of evaporation, and surfactants can help mitigate this by improving the spread of the pesticide on the plant surface.


In regions with frequent rainfall, there's a risk of pesticides being washed off before they have a chance to act. Both COCs and non-ionic surfactants can improve the sticking power of pesticides, reducing wash-off. However, the choice between them might depend on the specific pesticide and crop, as well as the timing of rain relative to application.


Areas with high wind speeds are more prone to pesticide drift, which can reduce the effectiveness of applications and harm non-target areas. While neither COCs or NIS will directly reduce drift, other adjuvants like FieldGrip™ DRA are designed to help with product drift. The choice of formulation and application technique, influenced by local wind patterns, can help mitigate this risk.

It’s important to always read and follow the pesticide label instructions, as the label will often specify whether an adjuvant is recommended and which type is preferred for optimal effectiveness.

Shop for Adjuvants on FBN

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The FBN platform is designed to make it easy to do business, with a convenient online store available 24/7 and timely direct-to-farm delivery. This means you can shop for adjuvants and other inputs at any time that suits you, without the need to align with traditional business hours.

Shop for adjuvants now.

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Written by Norm℠, reviewed and edited by Stephanie Nikolopoulos.

This content was generated with the assistance of Norm℠, FBN’s artificial intelligence (AI) Ag Advisor, based on a dataset of information containing general industry best practices and research. The AI model did not use specific external sources to generate this content. Our process involves using AI to aid human subject matter experts with the initial drafting and/or refinement of content. 

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Apr 04, 2024