Understanding Your Laundry Detergent by Donald Grummett

History ————

Soap has been around for 5000 years. Both the Egyptians and
Babylonians used soap for personal cleaning. Soap then was
a mixture of rendered animals fats and ashes.

Although its basic principles remain the same, it is now
made using a sophisticated chemical and manufacturing

Do you know that during the middle ages the use of soap was
considered unnatural? Some historians suggest the rejection
of soap, and the associated lack of hygiene, may have
contributed to the Black Death that ravaged Europe.

Even intolerance has been linked to soap. Some Europeans
rejected soap at this time because it was considered a
devilish product. Therefore it has been suggested that
cultures who continued using this amazing substance may
have been prejudiced against.

Even today people think it is a mystery product that they
imagine full of numerous secret ingredients boiled up in a
caldron. While not a magical product it is definitely a
substance that has helped transform society. It is
something we use every day to make our busy lives easier
and safer.

Detergent is not soap ———-

Prior to World War II laundry was cleaned with soap or soap
flakes. After the war detergent became the predominant
laundry cleaning choice. It was less expensive, more
convenient, and worked better with the new-fangled washing

Unlike soap, detergent lent itself to the high speed
processes that allowed it to be mass produced in huge
quantities for an ever-expanding market.

With time consumers also demanded variations of detergents
that would not have been possible with soap based
products. Low suds, high suds, high efficiency, phosphate
free, cold water types, fruit scented, non scented, baby
specific, liquid form, crystal form, and a multitude of
other types are all common today.

How clothes are cleaned ————

“Put the clothes in the washing machine… add the
detergent… start the machine to let the water enter…
and then walk away”. That is all most people know about
washing their clothes.

People do not realize that the detergent is only a minor
part of the cleaning process. The proper cleaning of
clothes involves many complex interactions.

In fact did you know it is the water in the washing machine
that does most of the cleaning, not the detergent?
Primarily, it is the water mixing with the dirt on the
clothes that lifts off the soiling matter and holds it in
suspension. Then as the washing machine is draining the
water finishes the job by carrying the dirt away with it.

Question: So, if the water does the work, why do we need
the detergent?

Answer: Because the detergent makes it all happen more

Water appears to be one large body of fluid. Actually it’s
not. In fact it is made up of miniscule balls of water
because of a phenomenon called surface tension. The best
analogy I can use is that surface tension is like the
shell around an egg. The natural state of water are these
tight little balls. And, because of their surface tension
they do not want to mix with other balls of water. So to
alleviate this problem we introduce detergent into this

The main job of detergent is to break down this surface

Once the surface tension is broken the water will mix
better with other water molecules. This will allow all the
water balls to flow into a large homogeneous mass that can
then be put to work.

By lowering its surface tension the water can be made to
penetrate the clothing fabric rather than slide off its
surface. Therefore, the detergent makes the water more

Some people describe it as making the water “slippery”.
Still others refer to it as making the water “wetter”.
Whatever the description the result is that the water can
attack the dirt more aggressively. The water gets into the
clothing fibres, loosens the dirt, and then holds it until
it can be washed away.

Additionally, the detergent helps keep the dirt suspended
within the water. This is necessary to prevent particles
of dirt from reattaching to the fabric. Without the
detergent this could happen every time the water-dirt
mixture came into contact with the clothing.

The last thing we need for a good wash is impart some
energy into the water. That is a fancy way of saying we
need to make it move. That is the job of the agitator
inside the washing machine.

By making the water roll it is tumbling the water against
the clothes. This drives the water-detergent mixture into
the clothes and makes them clean faster. Think of it as the
same principle used by our ancestors when they wet the
clothes in the river and then banged them against a rock to
loosen the dirt.

Detergent and hard water —————

One of the things that affects the cleaning process is
water hardness.

When detergent is used in hard water it produces soap scum.
Yes, the same stuff that makes that ring inside your
bathtub. The harder the water, the more soap scum.

Water hardness is a measure of its mineral content. So, the
more minerals, the more soap scum. The more scum, the less
concentrated the detergent.

Therefore, if your water is hard you need to compensate by
using more detergent per load of laundry. Conversely, the
softer the water the less detergent is required to clean
the clothes. If you read the detergent box it will usually
indicate how much detergent is needed for different water

Unsure of your water hardness? Telephone your municipality
or water provider and ask for the water hardness level. It
is quoted in grains. That is, 2-4 grains is soft, 4-6
grains is medium, and above 6-8 grains is hard water. If
you don’t know your water hardness, then experiment. Cut
back on your detergent. If the clothes still come out
clean, cut back further.

Detergent quantity per load —————-

Do not assume that the amount of detergent suggested on the
box is correct for you.

The manufacturer is offering general guidelines based upon
many variable factors. Load size, dirt content, detergent
type, machine type, water hardness, or water temperature
all effect the amount required. Some experimentation is
required to find how much detergent you should use per

Also, use a measuring cup to dispense your detergent. The
plastic measuring cup that comes in the detergent box is
there for a reason.

Once the perfect amount of detergent required is determined
continue to use this same amount for every load. Simply use
a marker to draw a line on the measure so your amount per
load will be consistent.

Remember, simply dumping out a quantity of detergent from
the box is a very bad idea. It is not only wasteful but
will contribute to poor and irregular cleaning results.

New products ————–

In recent years the front-loading washer has become common.
They have attracted much attention because they use
substantially less water and electricity. A front loader
uses about 40% less water and 50% less electricity.

The clothes no longer are suspended in a large tub of
water. Instead they roll inside a horizontal tub and only
pass through water when at the bottom of the tub.

The clothes are constantly being picked up and then dropped
into the water. This tumbling action takes the place of
the agitator used in a top load machine.

Along with the introduction of the front-loader has come a
new generation of laundry detergent. It is called
high-energy, or high-efficiency detergent. Generally
referred to as HE detergent. This type of detergent
produces very little suds.

A low sudsing detergent is necessary for a front loader
washer. If suds were present theywould form a cushion at
the bottom of the tub, between the clothes and the water.
This would drastically reduce the cleaning action of the

Also, the front-loader machines generally require less
detergent per load of laundry. Some sources indicate this
is because less water needs less detergent to obtain the
same water to detergent ratio. Other sources suggest it is
because the HE detergent is more concentrated, and so less
is needed to produce the same cleaning action.

Although more expensive the detergent used by front-loaders
can last a long time. For this reason it is often
suggested it be stored in a warm, dry location. If exposed
to moisture from the air it can clump up. If this is then
placed into a front-loaders dispenser it may not break down
properly resulting in a poor wash.

The Future —————–

What will the future bring to the field of laundry
detergent and clothes cleaning?

Manufacturers have been hinting at a type of washing
machine that requires no detergent. Some think it will
take the form of a microwave washer.

The dirt is radiated to the point where it is virtually
vaporized. Sounds like something out of Star Trek.

Others suggest washers may use electrically charged
particles to do the cleaning. The dirt would be given an
electrical charge different from the clothing. In this way
the dirt can then be drawn away from the fabric and then
disposed of into a filter.

At this point in time these things seem rather far-fetched
and theoretical.

Of course the same is always said until someone learns how
to turn a crazy theory into a practical device.

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