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Water Cooler: What’s in your laundry detergent?

Aug. 19, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 19, 2021 at 9:40 p.m.

Hang laundry outside when possible. The sunshine can kill bacteria on the fabric. There’s no mistaking the natural fresh smell.  (Pixabay)
Hang laundry outside when possible. The sunshine can kill bacteria on the fabric. There’s no mistaking the natural fresh smell. (Pixabay)

What makes laundry detergent so much better at cleaning clothing and fabrics than regular soap? The answer is in the ingredients. Learn more about what is in your detergent and the chemical magic behind how it cleans your clothes.

Prior to the invention of laundry detergent, clothes were usually cleaned with shaved or flaked soap made from a plant or animal fat and lye. Soap got the job done, but it tended to leave scum on clothes and washing machines if hard water was used.

During World War I, fat and oil shortages in Germany led German chemical companies to develop a synthetic fatty acid salt (also known as a soap salt). This synthetic replacement, called Dreft, did not clean heavily soiled clothes as well as soap, but it did perform better in hard water because it didn’t leave behind residue or scum.

The task was then to create a substance for laundry that could control the hardness of the water while lifting dirt from fabrics as well as soap. Procter & Gamble, more commonly known as P&G, found the answer in sodium tripolyphosphate. With this new synthetic ingredient that was able to lift and remove dirt and stains, P&G decided to launch a new detergent in 1946 called Tide. From that point forward, synthetic ingredients became king in the laundry industry.

Although every detergent manufacturer uses a unique formula, most detergent brands have similar basic ingredients.

Alkalis are water-soluble salts used in most laundry detergents as a base for the formula. They are able to lift dirt and stains from fabric without a lot of agitating or rubbing. They can form an emulsion with solid and oily particles and suspend them in the washing water to be later rinsed away. Originally created with plant ash, alkalis are now chemically produced by running an electric current through salt water. They vary greatly in strength, ranging from baking soda on the mild end, borax and ammonia in the middle and washing soda and lye on the strong end of the spectrum.

Surfactants are another important component in detergent and other cleaning products. They help lift and disperse dirt and other stains that would not be soluble in water alone. Surfactants also suspend the dirt and oil particles which then allows water to more effectively rinse them away.

Laundry detergents also contain other functional components such as pH modifiers to balance the base of the detergent, optical brighteners to make clothes appear brighter by manipulating UV light to look slightly more blue, water conditioners to control hard water, suds control and preservatives to hinder microbial growth.

Detergents often contain chemically produced enzymes in detergents due to their ability to breakdown stubborn stains that contain proteins (such as blood, egg yolk or grass), fats or starch. Different enzymes are used to break down different types of molecules into smaller pieces so they can be more easily washed away. They also make it possible to wash clothes in cold water, drastically reducing energy use.

Unless labeled otherwise, most detergents include fragrances to help mask undesirable odors and create a stronger perception of cleanliness. Dyes are sometimes added to detergents to create greater customer appeal, but they otherwise have no functional purpose.

Modern living allows us to take the mysterious cleaning capabilities of laundry detergent for granted, but examining all its ingredients shows just how much chemical technology is involved in this everyday product.

Rachel Baker can be reached at (509) 459-5583 or

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