The Chemistry of Clothes Washing #5: Detergents

So far, we’ve looked at various different aspects of the washing of clothes.

Today we get down to the nitty-gritty – want exactly is in the different types of laundry detergents.

Well, the first point to be made is that a laundry detergent needs to do more than just remove dirt.  It also needs to deodorise, whiten, brighten, soften, and prevent stains from re-depositing after they have been removed.

Not all detergents will achieve all of these goals – it’s a case of you get what you pay for.

The most basic ingredient of any detergent is the alkaline salts.  These are normally carbonates and silicates.  These are mostly used for deodorising as well as the removal of residue from animal fat (from your skin – like collar grime).

Now, if that’s all you want to do, then you can use these purely as your washing product.  For example, if you were washing underwear, work clothes, old “around the house only” clothes like trakkie dacks, sloppy Joes and T-shirts, then washing soda would do a good enough job.

The second ingredient of a laundry detergent is the actual detergent itself.  These are normally anionic in the case of powders and non-iconic in the case of liquids.  These are the general cleaning agents which will remove dirt, food stains, and other general crime.

The next ingredient are the bleaches.  These are a whole topic in themselves and I won’t go into them now.

Next, we have the builders.  The goal of these is to allow the detergents to still work with hard water (high in minerals).  These are generally phosphates or polyphosphates although they are falling out of favour a bit these days for reasons I won’t go into here.

Next on the list are the antiredeposition agents.  It’s kind of not obvious but when you remove dirt or a stain from your clothes, there is the possibility of it depositing elsewhere on the clothes.  The antiredeposition agents prevent this happening.

Next on the list are enzymes.  These, again are a specialised class of chemical which I won’t go into here, other than to say that they assist with the whitening of clothes.

Lastly, we have fluorescing agents.  The goal of these things is to give your clothes a “whiter than white” look.  They do this by fluorescing in UV light (sunlight).  The most obvious place you would see these is on a dance floor where UV lights are used and you sometimes see peoples’ clothing fluorescing.

So that’s a general look at what is in laundry detergents.  Different types and different brands have more or less of each of these agents, and they therefore determine the washing conditions that should be used.

In subsequent posts I’ll dig into each one of these in detail.

3720cookie-checkThe Chemistry of Clothes Washing #5: Detergents