My aunt always buys the same brand of laundry detergent as it is available in big packets with good discounts. My mother-in-law swears by a particular brand of detergent – because it smells good. I choose one which is gentle on my daughter’s sensitive skin. And my sister buys hers because she gets it in very small sachets.
All of us have our own reasons for choosing a detergent. But do we know our detergent? What is inside – the ingredients – those which helps it clean up all the dirt, the way it is supposed to?
In this article I will cover:
Common ingredients of laundry detergents
Surfactants, Anti-redisposition agents, Builders, Chelators, Dispersion agents, Enzymes, Optical brighteners, Alkalies, enzymes, solvents, Fragrance and Preservatives – these are some of the ingredients inside a laundry detergent packet.
Depending on the selling point of the particular detergent, there will be variation in the use of these compounds across different brands. Some may promise to give you brightness, and they will have a higher amount of optical brighteners or bleaching agents than a detergent which promises good fragrance.
Surfactants are the most important compounds in detergents. They help the fabric get thoroughly wet, absorb the water, and separate oil from the fibers. Surfactants help in foaming also.
No need to rub the fabric to the point of tearing to get oily stains. The oil, grease, and fat deposits are converted into water-soluble compounds when surfactants are used. The separated oil and grease are solidified and separated from the fabric.
Most detergents will have one or more surfactants.
Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate (LAS) is a very popular anionic surfactant. Alcohol Ethoxylate (AE) is another nonionic surfactant that is usually used in laundry detergents. Alkyl (or Alcohol) Ethoxy Sulphate (AES) and Alkyl Sulphate (AS) are anionic surfactants. Amine Oxide is an amphoteric surfactant. Ethylene oxide, These are all used to remove grease. Other compounds used as surfactants are Polyethylene Glycols (PEG), Polyethylene Oxide (PEO) or Polyoxyethylene (POE).
Anionic surfactants like sodium stearate are very commonly used in all kinds of detergents as they are very cheap. The other class is nonionic surfactant. These can be ethylene oxide based or polyhydroxy-based. Amphoteric surfactants are a combination of anionic and nonionic surfactants.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are cheap surfactants used in some low quality laundry detergents and some articles suggests that they can cause hormone issues and other serious medical issues. (Ref.)
Other cheap compounds that are used as surfactants in the detergent industry that are to be avoided are Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). They can cause skin irritations and may even be carcinogenic. (Ref.)
Builders help in improving the efficiency of detergents. They soften hardened water and improve the efficiency of detergents. The alkalinity of water is improved, and the detergency performance increases. Sodium Carbonate is the salt of carbonic acid, and it is used as a builder. Sodium Disilicate and Sodium Triphosphate (STPP), citrate are other builders.
Anti-redeposition agents and dispersion agents
Redeposition – the meaning is clear from the word itself. It prevents depositing of the dirt back again on the fabric/clothes after it is removed from the material by surfactants. You do not want to wash it again and again to remove the same stain.
Carboxymethyl Cellulose (CMC) is a polymer used as a redepositioning agent. This compound is made from natural cellulose. Other polymers like sodium polyacrylate, and polyethylene glycol polymers are used with the same purpose.
There are metal ions in water that can interfere with the efficiency of the compounds of detergents. And Chelators prevent that. They interfere with the mineral build-up. In other words., they target naturally occurring metal ions in water, especially in hard water, and prevent them from interfering with the cleaning action of surfactants.
Cyclodextrin is a chelating agent.
Phosphates are used in some detergents as chelators. I would say, stay away, as these are considered as environment disruptors (Ref.). According to an article I read they pollute water bodies. “Excessive amounts of phosphates in water bodies, can cause eutrophication, which is the excessive growth of algae and other aquatic plants. This can lead to oxygen depletion, fish kills, and other environmental problems.”
Bleaching agents are used in some detergents to remove stains. The efficiency of cleaning feels greater when bleaching agents are used.
Sodium Hypochlorite is a chlorine bleach used in detergents. Tetra Acetyl Ethylene Diamine (TAED) is another bleaching agent. Zinc Phthalocyanine Sulphonate (ZPS) is a bleaching agent.
Oxygen-bleaching agents are supposed to be comparatively less harsh (on the fabric as well as on the skin) than chlorine-bleaching agents. lnorganic peroxygen compounds, such as sodium perborate tetrahydrate and sodium percarbonate form oxygen-bleaching agents. Hydrogen Peroxide and Sodium percabonate are commonly used oxygen-bleaching agents.
Mono Ethanol Amine (MEA), 2-aminoethanol, or Ethanolamine
An organic amine and primary alcohol are used as a solvent and a weak base (which maintains the pH balance in your laundry).
Ethanol is a clear, colorless alcohol used as a solvent in detergents. Propylene Glycol is another solvent used.
Each one of these ingredients has a role to play in the way your detergent cleans up all the dirt.
Alkalies are chemicals with a pH level above 7. These agents are used in laundry detergents to improve their cleaning power. They work by breaking down oils and grease in clothes, making them easier to clean. Commonly used alkaline agents are Sodium Carbonate and sodium silicates.
If your clothing has a blood stain or a grass stain and you find that ordinary detergents does not remove them properly and thoroughly, you may need an enzymatic detergent. These contain biological agents that target specific types of stains, such as protein stains (blood) or starch stains (food stains). The most effective laundry detergents contain multiple enzymes. But not all detergents contain them.
If your clothes just have dirt and mud , you can use normal detergents without the enzymatic agents.
These are optional ingredients added to laundry detergents to make clothes smell fresh and pleasant. Smell is a very important sense in all human beings, and if something smells good, we are predisposed to think that it is more efficient. So a pleasant smell is imperative in laundry detergents. But there are some who prefer detergents to be fragrance-free because of skin sensitivity to added chemicals. Citric Acid is used in this way. Citric acid can be made from citrus fruits.
These are optional ingredients that make fabrics appear brighter and whiter by absorbing ultraviolet light and emitting blue light.Titanium and Titanium Dioxide are used as white pigments. Fluorescent brightener cbs-x is the most commonly used brightening agent.
Avoid if you see benzene used as an ingredient.
These are added to prolong the shelf life of the detergent and prevent bacterial growth. Look out for formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) and avoid. No need to tell you why!
Sud control agents
These suppress the suds caused by the various components of the detergent. These are desirable, especially in front loading washing machines where a lot of suds are not desirable.
These are used in detergents meant for washing machines. They prevent corrosion of parts of the machine due to the action of chemicals.
Powder and liquid detergents have a lot of common ingredients. But liquid detergents have some kind of watery agents that may be alcohol to make it the consistency that it has. This makes it more absorbent and penetrating than the powder detergent.
These give the color to the detergent. Not very useful for the cleaning purpose as such.
Some detergents have softeners added to them. Diethyl Ester Dimethyl Ammonium Chloride (DEEDMAC) is an ammonium compound used as a fabric conditioner. These are used to keep the fabric fibers smooth.
All of these chemicals make your laundry detergent effective at removing dirt and stains from your clothes.
But do you really want all of them?
Due to the way we live (fast-paced lives where some do not even have the time to wash their own clothes and give all of their clothes for dry cleaning and some do not have the space to dry clothes and depend on laundromats or 100% dryers and sometimes even the hair dryer), we have no other choice than to use the fully chemical-laden laundry detergents and just swap brands depending on the best discount, fragrance, etc.
But it is nice to know what ingredients are inside these washing powerhouses so that some of you can make informed choices.
Yes, You want them to keep your clothes looking clean and fresh. But do you really need that chlorine bleach detergent, or the extra fragrant one, or the enzyme one, or the high pH one?. Or are you inclined towards more environmentally friendly options or even better, fully natural laundry detergents ?
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