Science of Washing Detergents

23rd November 2022

Laundry detergents are generally a combination of several ingredients, including sufactants, enzymes, phosphates and parabens.

Here's how each of the ingredients work, their environmental impact and how Love U is making a difference.

Surfactants

Surfactant molecules are shaped like a balloon, with a head and a long tail. Both ends are polar opposites - the head is water-loving while the tail is water-hating and grease-loving.

So, when the surfactants encounter water in the washing machine, the opposite ends will try to go separate ways.

The tail will collect dirt with other tails, forming a circular formation around the dirt, referred to as micelles.

The heads stay away from the dirt while flowing with the water, pulling the tail and dirt along with them to be washed away.

Thus, it’s the polar opposite characteristic of surfactants that makes them very efficient in cleaning dirty laundry.

However, surfactants are often derived from petroleum, a type of fossil fuel. The extraction and refinement of petroleum produces high amounts of carbon dioxide. Thus, contributing to global warming.

Enzymes

Enzymes are also great cleaners, often combined with surfactants. How do enzymes work in laundry detergents?

There are many types of enzymes and each enzyme is able to break down a specific substance (also referred to as substrate).

For example, the enzyme Protease only breaks down protein. The enzyme Lipase only breaks down lipids or fats.

So, enzymes work similarly to how a padlock works, a padlock can only be unlocked with a specific key for it to work.

Since dirt and stains are often made out of lipids or protein, enzymes are fit for the job. Once unlocked, an enzyme can then break down the substance.

One of the benefits of enzymes is that they are naturally derived and work very efficiently in cold water. Cold water washing saves up to 80% electricity and is less damaging for your clothes and the environment.

Phosphates

Phosphates act as a ‘builder’ in laundry detergents to improve its cleaning performance.

It does so by softening the hard water. Hard water contains high amounts of minerals, mostly calcium and magnesium.

However, hard water has less cleaning power, so more cleaning concentrates are required to get the washed garments clean. Whereas, with soft water, not as much detergents are required to get clean laundry.

Thus, phosphates soften water by removing these minerals.

Yet, when phosphates enter the waterways, they cause algal blooms which suffocate other aquatic organisms.

Parabens

Parabens are the most commonly used preservative due to its ability to extend the shelf-life of detergents. It’s one of the most efficient preservatives to prevent moulding.

However, they pose an ecological harm. In waterways, parabens can kill coral reefs and disrupt the hormonal balance of aquatic lives.

Similarly, when contacting our bodies, parabens may first cause sensitised skin and allergic reactions. Hormone and reproductive system disruption may follow.

Thus, our choice of laundry detergents has large impacts on the planet and our health.

How Love U is making a difference:

  • Love U uses plant-based surfactants derived from RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) palm oil.
  • Love U uses biodegradable, naturally derived enzymes that deliver performance in cold water.
  • Love U does not contain parabens or phosphates.
  • Love U is designed for cold water washing performance.

Resources


ACI 2022 https://www.cleaninginstitute.org/understanding-products/ingredients/ingredient-chemical-and-function-glossary

Cha et al. 2001 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149639501800155

FDA 2022 https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/parabens-cosmetics

NJ Laundromats https://njlaundromats.com/soft-water-and-why-your-clothes-love-it/?doing_wp_cron=1666412658.8668899536132812500000

Rai et al. 2021 https://doi.org/10.3390/sci3040044

Stoiber 2019 https://www.ewg.org/what-are-parabens

University of York 2003 https://www.york.ac.uk/res/sots/activities/soapysci.htm

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