What is Hydrophobic? - Definition & Interactions

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Williams
In chemistry, water is considered to be the universal solvent, and materials that are hydrophilic can dissolve in it. Hydrophobic molecules, however, do not dissolve in water. This lesson discusses the characteristics necessary for molecules to be considered hydrophobic.


Have you ever heard the phrase 'oil and water don't mix'? Though this phrase is hardly ever used in a scientific setting, the basis behind the old saying is due to chemistry. Indeed, oil does not mix with water and, because of this, it is considered hydrophobic. Let's discuss what it means for a molecule to be hydrophobic, and why this is an important characteristic in chemistry.

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Definition of Hydrophobic

The word hydrophobic comes from the Greek roots hydro- (meaning water) and -phobia (meaning fearing or hating). The word hydrophobic describes the fact that nonpolar substances don't combine with water molecules. Let's take a closer look at that definition. Water is a polar molecule, which means that it carries a partial charge between its atoms. Oxygen, as an electronegative atom, draws the electrons of each bond closer to its core, thus creating a more negative charge. Therefore, any materials with a charge, be it negative or positive, will be able to interact with water molecules to dissolve. (Think of how salt dissolves in water. This is due to the charges of the ions sodium and chlorine.)

So essentially, hydrophobic molecules are molecules that do not have a charge, meaning they are non-polar. By lacking a charge, these molecules do not have any charge-to-charge interactions that will allow them to interact with water. Hydrophobic materials often do not dissolve in water or in any solution that contains a largely aqueous (watery) environment. This characteristic of being hydrophobic - or non-polar - is important for many of the molecules found in nature, in other organisms, and even within our own bodies.

Examples of Hydrophobic Molecules and Materials


Waxes are practical examples of hydrophobic molecules that are used commercially and biologically because of their abilities to resist interacting with water. For example, if you have ever had your car waxed, you probably noticed that the water would bead up and roll off of the paint afterwards. This is because the applied wax is hydrophobic and will not interact with water. Waxes, in this case, help to keep water away from the surface of the car.

Commercial waxes repel water to cause beading.
water beading

On the other hand, in many biological systems, waxes may be used for other means. Some plants, for example, utilize waxes to prevent water from escaping through evaporation. Many of the succulent plants, such as aloe, produce waxes that allow their tissues to retain water for biological use. Still, the reason these plants are able to do so is the hydrophobicity of the waxes.

Aloe plants use wax to retain water.
Aloe Plant

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