I never bothered to look carefully at the labels on the detergents I bought and always tossed the usual brand into my shopping cart until the day my kid started breaking out in rashes. The doctor we consulted suggested that a change of laundry detergent from the current one to a PH Neutral one may help, and it sure did. It was some allergy to the ingredients in the detergent we used.
You do not have to wait till you break out. You never may, but you can as well. If you start looking more closely at what detergents you use for washing clothes, you can make more informed choices. Knowledge about what you put on your clothes may not be as important as the food we put inside us, but it is not unimportant.
The different types of cleaning agents we use to clean our clothes
Detergents are the most commonly used cleaning agent for fabric – that which we put into the washing machine in powder or liquid form. They suspend, solubilize, dissolve, or separate dirt and soil from fabric so that they will not re-deposit on the fabric’s surface but will stay put, suspended in the water.
They are usually called synthetic detergents as most of the detergents today are made from petrochemicals and contain wetting agents and emulsifiers – they are sulfate or sulfonate salts. Detergents are very effective for removing dirt/soil from manufactured and blended fabrics
Ingredients of Detergents.
Detergent: Product the formulation of which is specially devised to promote the development of detergency. Note: A detergent is a formulation comprising essential constituents (surface active agents) and subsidiary constituents (builders, boosters, fillers and auxiliaries). www.chem-online.com
Most of the detergents you use have the following ingredients –
Surfactants are the dirt removing agents – they are named anionic surfactants, nonionic surfactants, and cationic surfactants. Most of them are biodegradable.
Builders like zeolites and phosphates are added to the surfactants to boost cleaning.
Fillers like Sodium sulfate, Borax, Sodium chloride, water, alcohol, and Anti-foaming agents are added for various purposes. Other ingredients include bleach, enzymes, and whitening agents may also be added.
There are so many different types of detergents today since their introduction (said to be during the first world war), and every so often, new ones are being discovered that promise to do exciting things in cleaning. Many even promise the sun shining on your clothes.
Many additives are added to the detergents to make them more efficient. Some of the additives added maybe counterproductive to the cleaning you have in mind so reading the label of the cleaning product you buy is very important.
Types of detergents
Powder detergents are more effective than liquid detergents but liquid ones are more gentle on fabric and best for cleaning lightly soiled clothes. Detergents are also available in a cake form.
Generally, detergents are of two types Anionic and non-anionic. Some are a combination.
The powder form detergents are of the anionic class. They are the fatty derivatives of aromatic sulfonic acids. They are good for cleaning natural fabrics like cotton, linen and work well to remove oily stains and clay. They work best with warm soft water. Do not use hard water with these detergents.
The non-anionic detergents are mostly in liquid form and do not produce much foam. They are good at cleaning synthetic fabrics and work well to remove oily soils and work ok in hard water.
Enzyme detergents, phosphate-free detergents, are terms commonly heard and very much desired. Phosphate free detergents promise to be good for the environment. Today most detergents are phosphate free.
Enzyme detergents are good for stain removal. They are good for removing protein stains like blood-stains
Presoak detergents are used to soak clothes prior to cleaning and they are meant to loosen up and remove hard stains.
Hand washing detergents are used for hand laundering specific types of fabrics for eg. hand laundry detergents for woolen clothes. They have special properties that take care of the properties of the fabric they cater to.
Soap is a biodegradable cleaning agent (fatty acid salts ) made by combining fats (animal or vegetable) with Lye (Sodium Hydroxide).
All our ancestors used soap to clean their clothes for a long long time. No one cared that their clothes increasingly became dull and grey. Even if they cared they had no alternatives; till the detergents were discovered.
Soap forms a deposit on clothes, especially with hard water. When you have access to only hard water ( with dissolved salts of calcium, magnesium and/or iron) for cleaning clothes (even mildly hard water) these salts combine with soap to form a curd-like precipitate- very undesirable ugly looking scum
Soap is not as effective as detergents especially with synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, spandex, and acrylic. And not suitable to use in the washing machine because of the scum.
If you are hand washing and rinsing, the scum can be removed with many rinses. So if you are environment conscious (It is environment-friendly) and you do not mind a little extra labor, you may try washing clothes with soap.
There are two types of bleach – Chlorine bleach and Oxygen bleach. Chlorine bleach is strong and can whiten clothes very effectively but it can weaken fabric fibers. So you are not supposed to use chlorine bleach on protein fabrics like silk, wool or on lycra, spandex, elastic.1 part liquid bleach to 4 parts water is the usual formula used to clean stains on fabrics that will take bleach – like cotton, linen.
Oxygen bleach is color safe and more gentle on fabric fibers. Learn more about bleach use here.
4. Laundry Boosters
They are added as an addition to detergents to improve the performance of detergents. They help in the better removal of stains and brighten the color of clothes. They may also have water softening properties.
5. Stain removers
Stain removers target stains and they are usually used before washing as spot stain removers. They may be a combination of detergents, alcohols, mineral spirits, and enzymes and work effectively in removing the stain without fading colours.
6. Optical Brighteners
These are additives that make the whites appear whiter. They absorb ultraviolet light from the sun or from fluorescent fixtures and emit it as blue light. They may be already added in your detergent. You can use bluing agents in a separate final rinse to get the same effect.
7. Fabric Softener
After the clothes are washed they take on a stiff scratchy feel – if you do not like this you can add fabric softeners to the water. They coat your clothes with a waxy lubricant that adds a soft hand to them.
They also reduce static buildup in the dryer and do not let the clothes tangle with each other. Fabric softeners also reduce wrinkling. Towels come out fluffy, bed sheets soft, and your blouses almost wrinkle free. You can read more on fabric softeners here.
Hair shampoo is used for washing clothes by many people – especially for handwashing natural fibers. But not all shampoos are effective as cleansers- some may even do harm. They may have ingredients not suitable for the fabric fibers. Do not buy shampoo with additional ingredients like oil conditioning etc. They will leave an oily residue.
You should be looking for ingredients like Lauric acid, Myristic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid in your shampoo for it to be effective as a good cleaning agent for clothes.
9. Water softeners
So many homes have access to only hard water all over the world – those who have good soft water for drinking and cleaning should count themselves lucky.
Hard water is caused by minerals present in the water. As a result, detergent won’t lather up and clean clothes as effectively as with soft water. The clothes will look dull and white clothes especially will start to look grey after some time.
Water softeners are added to the water to change the hard water property to soft. Usually, they are available as a tablet and they are added to each wash. Check out this post on different ways to reduce the harness in water.
10. Home remedies
Baking soda, washing soda, Lime juice, Vinegar, Hydrogen Peroxide – there are many home remedies that we regularly use to clean things. Most of them can be used for clothes too. Dish washing liquid is used as a spot stain remover, especially for oily stains. Dishwasher soap powder is also used this way- as a spot stain cleaner.
Reference : Consumer reports books – How to clean anything.
Updated on August 28, 2022 by Sarina Tariq