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The real soap opera

March 2019

Putting clothes into a washing machine
Washing clothes is no longer a simple activity

3-in-1 pods, cold water gel, bio or non bio, non phosphate and now specialist men and spot detergents...it’s got to the state where we probably feel we need a university degree to choose the best washing powder.

It all used to be so much more simple.

Before all these washing powders and liquids came on the market, soap was the cleaner of choice, used with a lot of scrubbing and rinsing. Early soap was developed in the mists of history; it seems the Phoenicians prepared soap from goat’s tallow and wood ash as early as 600 BC and certainly the Celts used a mixture of animal fat and plant ashes with the name of saipo, which led to the word soap.

The Victorian era saw a major step forward – especially the Lever brothers who manufactured soap on a large industrial scale and also built a special town called Port Sunlight in Mersey for their workers. It was these brothers who developed soap flakes and soap powder to help soap dissolve more easily in water.

Today soap has been replaced with artificial detergents. These detergents vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and their ingredients are generally quite a closely guarded secret. Typically, they will include ionic and anionic surfactants. These are wetting agents that lower the surface tension of a liquid, so they help water penetrate the clothing to rinse out dirt and stains.

Phosphates, or “builders”, are often also included to tie up the natural salts found in hard water which can interfere with the action of the detergent. Other ingredients can include optical brighteners - these compounds reflect blue light, which make white clothes look less yellow and in many cases can make them look super white. In powders, anticaking agents are often included to prevent the power dividing into large hard lumps. Various levels of bleaches, enzymes and catalysts can be included to help speed up the stain removing reactions and various perfume additives are often added for a sweet fresh scent.

The difference between biological washing powders and non-biological washing powders is that the biological washing powders contain enzymes to break down stains and dirt. Non-biological washing powders do not contain these enzymes. Generally, the washing powders with enzymes can take longer to disperse within the environment than the non-biological powders, making the non-bio powders more environmentally friendly. However, other people who prefer biological washing powders say you can do your wash at a lower temperature than with non-bio detergents, therefore saving electricity. Some people find their skin reacts to the enzymes in biological washing powders, and therefore choose non-biological products.

There are some washing powders that are designed for specific purposes; for instance, powders designed for “colours”. Generally, it is thought these really are much the same as other washing powders but contain less bleach; however, the manufacturing companies guard their own unique formulae very tightly and so the actual ingredients are not listed.

In more recent years there has been a trend for people to wash their clothes at lower temperatures for many reasons. It helps the environment by using less fuel to heat the water; it also saves money, and it can be more gentle on clothes. However, at lower temperatures the reactions tend to be slower, so sometimes washing powders contain an “accelerator” to help speed up the reactions. For instance, using manganese as a catalyst allows bleach to work at perhaps 40°C instead of the usual 60°C.

In the last few years there has also been growing increase in “eco” wash products which are biodegradable and made with plant derived ingredients that won’t add phosphates to the waterways of the world.

New products are already in the pipeline including special patches which you stick on extra dirty areas on the clothes to attract extra levels of detergent. Who would have thought a simple wash could be quite so complex?

At the end of the day, there is such a wide choice of washing powders and liquids available that one can only learn what works best by experimentation. But at least by understanding a little about the background, you may save some time in your research.


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