Abstract The spreading of surfactant solutions over hydrophobic surfaces is considered from both theoretical and experimental points of view. Water droplets do not wet a virgin solid hydrophobic substrate. It is shown that the transfer of surfactant molecules from the water droplet onto the hydrophobic surface changes the wetting characteristics in front of the drop on the three-phase contact line. The surfactant molecules increase the solid–vapor interfacial tension and hydrophilize the initially hydrophobic solid substrate just in front of the spreading drop. This process causes water drops to spread over time. The time of evolution of the spreading of a water droplet is predicted and compared with experimental observations. The assumption that surfactant transfer from the drop surface onto the solid hydrophobic substrate controls the rate of spreading is confirmed by our experimental observations.