Abstract A method for the separation, characterization and determination of fatty alcohol ethoxylates (FAE) and alkylether sulfates (AES) in industrial and environmental samples is described. Separation of the two surfactant classes was achieved in a 50:50 methanol–water medium by retaining AES on a strong anionic exchanger (SAX) whereas most FAE were eluted. After washing the SAX cartridges to remove cations, the residual hydrophobic FAE were eluted by increasing methanol to 80%. Finally, AES were eluted using 80:20 and 95:5 methanol–concentrated aqueous HCl mixtures. Methanol and water were removed from the FAE and AES fractions, and the residues were dissolved in 1,4-dioxane. In this medium, esterification of FAE and transesterification of AES with a cyclic anhydride was performed. Phthalic and diphenic anhydrides were used to derivatizate the surfactants in industrial samples and seawater extracts, respectively. Separation of the derivatized oligomers was achieved by gradient elution on a C8 column with acetonitrile/water in the presence of 0.1% acetic acid. Good resolution between both the hydrocarbon series and the successive oligomers within the series was achieved. Cross-contamination of FAE with AES and vice versa was not observed. Using dodecyl alcohol as calibration standard, and correction of the peak areas of the derivatized oligomers by their respective UV–vis response factors, both FAE and AES were evaluated. After solid-phase extraction on C18, the proposed method was successfully applied to the characterization and determination of the two surfactant classes in industrial samples and in seawater.