Dispersants contain detergents, not unlike those people use to wash dishes, which help break oil into small droplets that can become diluted in the ocean. They also contain an organic solvent that helps the detergents (also known as surfactants) mix with both the oil and water. The solvent is not as effective on oil that has been oxidized by sunlight, so dispersants are less effective on oil that has floated on the sea surface for a few days, especially during sunny weather. (Natalie Renier, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
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