The Clean Chemistry Of Laundry Detergents

Have you ever wondered how it is that you put dirty clothes in a washing machine and they emerge clean just a short while later?

It certainly hasn’t always been this way! Less than 100 years ago, the automatic washing machine was unheard of. Many people still did their laundry by hand! The clothes they washed never had the sparkling white look that you can get today.

Yet items can still be hand washed today and come out looking white. So what’s the difference? The Clean Chemistry Of Laundry Detergents

How The Detergent Works

The real difference is that detergent is now far more advanced. They contain a large number of chemicals which are designed to work on your clothes; removing debris, bacteria and other dirt.

But the detergent can’t do this job by itself. It needs to be agitated and generally works better in warm water.

However, it is worth noting that not all of these chemicals are good for you; check the ingredients before you purchase your laundry detergent.

Water Conditioners

This is usually the biggest ingredient in your laundry detergent. They are designed to attract metal, calcium and other chemicals which are in normal tap water.

These minerals will reduce the effectiveness of the washing process. The conditioners bind to them to improve the quality of your wash.

If you take a look at the packaging you’ll probably see Sodium carbonate as an ingredient. This is a water conditioner and one of the best.

Older style detergents may use a compound known as sodium triphosphate but this is known to cause environmental issues after it is discharged from your machine.


This should be the second biggest ingredient in your laundry detergent.  These are chemical compounds which link together to create long chains in your machine; invisible to your eye.

Unfortunately, the chains are made up of two parts, dodecyl; which hates water and benzosulfate; which loves water.

The dodecyl part of the chain will try to hang onto your clothes to avoid the water, while the benzosulfate will happily be in the water.

They only way they can reach a state they will be happy in is to attach to fat and other food stains on your clothes. This way, they can both be where they prefer. Unfortunately it is difficult for them to hang on while the water is sloshing round. As a compromise they create a seal round the dirt and float into the water. The dodecyl stays inside the seal keeping it dry and both parts happy.

In the process the dirt is removed from your clothing!


The final part of the picture is formed by enzymes which digest the bacteria that cause stains on your clothes. These enzymes work alongside the surfactants to remove all the dirt from your clothes.

All you see is clean clothes but the detergent has been working hard during your wash. Of course all these particles are tiny and washed away with the water; you never have to see or interact with them!

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