Sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl) is recommended as an endodontic irrigant in view of its broad antimicrobial and tissue dissolution capacities. To enhance its penetration into inaccessible areas of root canals and to improve its overall effect, the addition of surface-active agents has been suggested. The aim of this investigation was to review the effect of the reduction of the surface tension on the performance of NaOCl in endodontics. A search was performed in the Medline electronic database (articles published up to 28 July 2012, in English) with the search terms and combinations as follows: ‘sodium hypochlorite AND surface tension or interfacial force or interfacial tension or surface-active agent or amphiphilic agent or surface active agent or surfactant or tenside or detergent'. The purpose of this search was to identify publications that compared NaOCl alone and NaOCl modified with the addition of a surface-active agent in endodontics. A hand search of articles published online (‘in-press’ and ‘early view’), and appearing in the reference list of the articles included, was further performed, using the same search criteria as the electronic search. The search identified 302 publications, of which 11 fulfilled the inclusion/exclusion criteria of the review. The evidence available suggests that surface-active agents improve the penetration of NaOCl in the main canal and have no effect on its pulp tissue dissolution ability. There are, however, insufficient data to enable a sound conclusion to be drawn regarding the effect of modifying NaOCl's surface tension on lubrication, antimicrobial and smear layer or debris removal abilities.