We often become so focused on cleaning our clothes that we are hardly mindful about how the cup of detergent we put so much hope into is going to get rid of the dirt from our clothes. For those of you who are as curious as i am about this, this post is for you. In it, we will be looking at the non-scientific compositions and functions of a few of the many ingredients you find in soapy detergents.

The last thing we think about when cleaning clothes is how the products we use actually work, what ingredients are in the detergent we are using and how those soaps and detergents remove the sometimes oily and greasy stains on your fabric, or put simply, how do they work? Just sit back and let us educate you, so you may do your laundry with an informed mind about the science of cleaning clothes. Knowing and understanding your cleaning detergents will help you make informed decisions when it comes to purchasing and the best methods of use for different types of materials and dirt types. Here are a few facts to give you an understanding of the soaps and detergents you use when cleaning clothes.

Soap & Detergent Made Easy

Soaps and Detergents

The different soaps and detergents we use all differ in their dirt-fighting activities. And to better understand how each works, it is important to know their nature. Firstly, soaps and detergents are two different dirt-fighting products made from different ingredients. Soaps are made from natural fats and oils while detergents are synthetic mixtures of ingredients that possess many useful properties. Soaps work best for skin and body but not much for clothes because the soap scum it creates is hard to remove off fabrics. Hence soap is replaced by detergents which have the ability to clean effectively.

Surfactants Defined

One thing that soaps and detergents have in common is that they both contain surfactants. These are cleaning ingredients that aid the wetting ability of water. This makes it easier for water to fight off dirt and stains. Surfactants are made up of two molecules that work together to dissolve in each other and in water and oil. Oil attracts the one molecule while water attracts the other end of the other molecule. This dual nature works together to penetrate into the dirt and stains in your clothes while the other dissolves the surrounding water. This force is what pulls the stains from your fabric and protects them from getting back into your clothes.

 Understanding Enzymes

What enhances the effectiveness of compounds found in surfactants are compounds called enzymes. These are molecules made by living organisms that are often called catalysts. Enzymes work like digestive acid in the stomach, this is shown in their ability to break dirt down into smaller parts, making it easier for surfactant compounds to remove dirt and stains. Many of you can find enzymes in meat tenderizers in your home. This can be used in removing stains when you don’t have enzyme detergents (check detergent labeling to confirm this). Make sure to rinse well when using detergents with enzymes as an alternative stain removal product.

 Builders in Detergents

Builders make up a large portion of what is used in a detergent. It is a chemical compound that softens hard water and works to remove water minerals containing calcium and magnesium. It also serves the function of turning wash water into alkaline which neutralizes acids and break up oil and fat in your clothes. Alternatively, you may use baking soda or bicarbonate, which contains alkaline and works just as well in removing acid stains. These builders also work to boost the effectiveness of surfactants. A common builder found in detergents in the past was phosphates. This chemical removed minerals from hard water but was found harmful to the environment then discontinued.

Suds and Bleaching

Suds contain molecules that are made from natural fats that can either boost or depress levels of suds. Bleaches on the other hand do not remove dirt but disinfects and deodorizes clothes.

Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaning is the most effective way of removing dirt and stains. It is a process that uses liquid to dissolve and flush away oil, grease and underlying soils. This liquid is derived from petroleum and a carbon-and chlorine-containing compound called perchloroethylene. These liquids surround and dissolve molecules. The most basic form of dry cleaning is using vegetable shortening as a solvent to remove oils and pigments.

So there you have it, clearly there’s more to the powdery substance we use in the wash then there looks to be. Now you should have a better understanding of the chemistry of the detergents you use to do your laundry, and how the various components of these work together to remove dirt from clothes. You should also have gained some knowledge about alternative ways of achieving similar results with products you probably have in your home, for cases where you do not have a detergent handy for an emergency when it comes up.

This post was sponsored by Vanish, your partner in stain removal. Visit their website for more tips on cleaning clothes.

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  1. Tanna
    7 September 2014 at 04:26 (7 years ago)

    🙂 interesting

  2. Lynn
    7 September 2014 at 05:11 (7 years ago)

    I’ve been thinking of trying Vanish … Interesting post sista.