Surface Tension

Surface tension is the tendency of fluid surfaces to shrink into the minimum surface area possible. Have you noticed when you fill a glass up to the brim with water, you can still add a few more drops till it spills out? Or have you ever broken a thermometer and observed how the fallen mercury behaves? All these happen due to the surface tension of the surface. Let us understand the concept, surface tension definition along with its SI unit, formula and examples.

Table of Contents:

What is Surface Tension?

According to the definition of surface tension, it is the phenomenon that occurs when the surface of a liquid is in contact with another phase (it can be a liquid as well). Liquids tend to acquire the least surface area possible. The surface of the liquid behaves like an elastic sheet.

“Surface tension is the tension of the surface film of a liquid caused by the attraction of the particles in the surface layer by the bulk of the liquid, which tends to minimise surface area”.

Surface tension not only depends upon the forces of attraction between the particles within the given liquid but also on the forces of attraction of solid, liquid or gas in contact with it. The energy responsible for the phenomenon of surface tension may be thought of as approximately equivalent to the work or energy required to remove the surface layer of molecules in a unit area. 

Surface tension is typically measured in dynes/cm, the force in dynes is required to break a film of length 1 cm. 

Given below in a table is the surface tension of various liquids:


Surface Tension (N/m)









Sodium Chloride



Surface tension definition lets us know that the surface tension mainly depends upon the forces of attraction between the particles within the given liquid and also upon the gas, solid, or liquid in contact with it.

If there is a small leaf or a paper clip placed on the surface of a glass of water, what causes it to float over it? Watch the video below to find out the answer.


What Causes Surface Tension?

Intermolecular forces such as Van der Waals force, draw the liquid particles together. Along the surface, the particles are pulled toward the rest of the liquid. Surface tension is defined as,

The ratio of the surface force F to the length L along which the force acts.

Mathematically, surface tension can be expressed as follows:



  • F is the force per unit length
  • L is the length in which force act
  • T is the surface tension of the liquid

What is the Unit of Surface Tension?

The SI unit of Surface Tension is Newton per Meter or N/m. Check other units in the table provided below.

SI Unit
CGS Unit

Dimension of Surface Tension

As we know, surface tension is given by the formula,

Surface tension = F/L

We know that F = ma, substituting the value in the equation, we get


Equating the fundamental quantities into the equation, we get


Solving further, we get


Hence, the dimensional formula of surface tension is MT-2.

You may also want to check out these topics given below!

Examples of Surface Tension

Water striders, which are small insects, can walk on water as their weight is considerably less to penetrate the water surface. Like this, there are various examples of surface tension which are found in nature. Some cases are provided below:

  • Insects walking on water
  • Floating a needle on the surface of the water.
  • Rainproof  tent materials where the surface tension of water will bridge the pores in the tent material
  • Clinical test for jaundice
  • Surface tension disinfectants (disinfectants are solutions of low surface tension).
  • Cleaning of clothes by soaps and detergents which lowers the surface tension of the water
  • Washing with cold water
  • Round bubbles where the surface tension of water provides the wall tension for the formation of water bubbles.
  • This phenomenon is also responsible for the shape of liquid droplets.

How to Calculate Surface Tension?

Here is an example for calculating surface tension by using the formula.

Compute the surface tension of a given liquid whose dragging force is 7 N and the length in which the force acts is 2 m?



  • F = 7 N
  • L = 2 m

According to the formula,

T = F/L

T = 7/2

T = 3.5 N/m

Methods of Measurement

Some methods of measurement of surface tension are given in the points below:

  • Spinning drop method
  • Pendant drop method
  • Du Noüy–Padday method
  • Du Noüy ring method
  • Wilhelmy plate method
  • Pendant drop method
  • Stalagmometric method
  • Capillary rise method
  • Bubble pressure method
  • Resonant oscillations of a spherical and hemispherical liquid drop
  • The vibrational frequency of levitated drops
  • Sessile drop method

Frequently Asked Questions – FAQs


Why is raindrop spherical?

Presence of cohesive forces between liquid molecules and the surface tension of the liquid.


What happens when a soap bubble is charged?

When a soap bubble is charged, it expands.


What is the dimensional formula of surface tension?

The dimensional formula of surface tension is: [ML0T-2].


What is the surface tension of water at its boiling point?

The surface tension of water at its boiling point is zero.


Which are the forces behind the origin of surface tension?

The forces behind the origin of surface tension are a cohesive force and adhesive force.

Hope you have understood the surface tension of water and various other liquids. Stay tuned with BYJU’S to learn more about surface tension and other physics concepts with the help of interactive video lessons.

Test your Knowledge on Surface Tension


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  1. This is good leraning app

  2. Thanks for your tremendous efforts to make physics an interesting subject. Bravo!

  3. Is it possible for humans to walk on water because of surface tension?

    • No, it is not possible for humans to walk on water.


      In nature, more than 1200 species of animals can walk on water. Smaller animals such as spiders and insects make use of the surface tension of the water to stay afloat. However, the surface tension of the water is too weak to support the weight of larger animals such as basilisk lizard. These lizards stay on the water by generating force by slapping their feet on the water. With this said, for a human to walk on water like the basilisk lizard, he/she would have to sprint about 67 mph. This feat would take about 15 times more energy than the human body is capable of expending, which is practically not possible.