flowerThe Laundry - History & Chemistry

Some soap manufacture took place in Venice and Savona in the fifteenth century...

In primitive societies, even today, clothes are cleaned by beating them on rocks near a stream. Certain plants, such as soapworts, have leaves that produce sapions, chemical compounds that give a soapy lather. These were probably the first detergents people used.

If you look up detergent in a dictionary it is simply defined as cleaning agent. During the last two to three decades, however, the word detergent has tended to imply synthetic detergent, or syndet for short, rather than the older soap . In fact, commercial formulations consist of a number of components, and we shall use the term surface-active agent , or it's abbreviation surfactant, to describe the special active ingredients that give detergents their unusual properties.

Soap, by this definition, is a surfactant. In fact, it is the oldest one and has been in use for 4500 years. Some soap manufacture took place in Venice and Savona in the fifteenth century, and in Marseilles in the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, manufacture was widespread throughout Europe and North America, and by the nineteenth century the making of soap had become a major industry. As a matter of fact, soap became a detergent in 1907 when a German company put the product "Persil" on the market. In addition to the carboxylic acid soap, "Persil" contained sodium perborate, sodium silicate and sodium carbonate. Hence perborate + silicate = "PERSIL".

flowerSynthetic Surfactant or Soap ?

You may well ask why soap, which served well for so many years, was eventually displaced. Soaps are cheap and they are manufactured from a renewable source, whereas many of the synthetic detergents are made from petrochemicals. Soaps are also biodegradable; that is, they are readily broken down by bacteria, and thus they do not pollute rivers. However, due to their gelling properties, soaps do have a greater tendency to clog sewerage reticulation systems than synthetic detergents. The grease trap of a non-sewered house was often laden with soap. But the most important reason for the displacement of soap is the fact that, when a carboxylic acid soap is used in hard water, precipitation occurs. The calcium and magnesium ions, which give hardness to the water, form insoluble salts with the fatty acid in soap and a curd-like precipitate occurs and settles, of course, on what ever is being washed. By using a large excess of soap, it is possible to redisperse the precipitate, but it is extremely sticky and difficult to move. This problem with soap can be demonstrated by a simple experiment in which a concentrated solution of hard-water salts is added to a 0.1% solution of soap and also to a 0.1% solution of synthetic surfactant. The soap precipitates, but the synthetic surfactant remains clear because it's salts are water soluble.

You may live in an area where the water is extremely soft. But calcium and magnesium ions are present in the dirt that you wash out of your clothes, so that some precipitation still occurs if soap is used, and gradually deposits are built up in the fabric.

There are other disadvantages with soap; it deteriorates on storage, and it lacks cleaning power when compared with the modern synthetic surfactants, which can be designed to perform specialised cleaning tasks. Finally and very importantly from a domestic laundry point of view, soap does not rinse out; it tends to leave a residue behind in the fabric that is being washed. A residue gradually builds up and causes bad odour, deterioration of the fabric and other associated problems.

flowerWhat's the Difference ?

What's the difference between a surfactant and soap ? In general terms, the difference can be likened to the difference between cotton and nylon. On the one hand, soap and cotton are produced from natural products by a relatively small modification. On the other hand, synthetic surfactants and nylon are produced entirely in a chemical factory. Synthetic surfactants are not very new, either. Back in 1834 the first forerunner of today's synthetic surfactants was produced in the form of a sulfated castor oil, which was used in the textile industry.

The development of the first detergents in an effort to overcome the reaction of soaps with hard water provides a good illustration of one of the standard chemical approaches. If a useful substance has some undesirable property, an attempt is made to prepare an analogue, a near chemical relation, which will prove more satisfactory.

The petroleum industry had, as a waste product, the compound propylene, CH3-CH=CH2, which used to be burnt off. By joining four of these propylene molecules together and if benzene is attached at the double bond, the resulting compound reacts with sulphuric acid. Then sodium hydroxide is added to neutralise the sulfonic acid and a sodium salt is obtained. The new substance is closely related to an ordinary soap, and is an excellent detergent.

flowerDetergent Foam Level

...foam height has no direct relationship to cleaning power in ordinary fabric washing systems...

The relationship between foaming power and detergency has always been of interest, and foaming power has become associated in many consumers' minds with high detergent power. The first liquid detergent on the Australian market was "Trix". It was non-foaming, so was soon replaced because of consumer resistance. However, it is generally conceded by detergent technologists that foam height has no direct relationship to cleaning power in ordinary fabric washing systems.

In systems where the amount of washing fluid is low, foam may play an important role. The individual foam films tend to take up and hold particles of soil that have been removed from the item, preventing them from being re-deposited and allowing them to be washed or scraped away. Front loading washing machines work by bashing clothes against the side of the tub - the high tech version of beating clothes on rocks. Front loaders clean clothes better than top loaders, but only if a low-suds detergent is used, because the suds cushion the impact and reduce the cleaning action .

flowerWashing in Machines

...the English and Europeans wash most loads for at least an hour in water up to 80C...

The type of washing machine used in New Zealand and Australia tends to control the standard of wash, since the percentage of separate dwellings in our countries that have washing machines rose from 86% in 1976 to virtually 100% by 1984. Automation has bought with it daily washing (Monday washing is a myth!), small loads, little soaking, little sorting of fabric types, and less care about the end result.

Whereas the English and Europeans wash most loads for at least an hour in water up to 80C (today closer to 60C) and use plenty of detergent, we tend to wash a load for an average of 10 minutes in water around 40C and use one-third of the detergent Europeans do. (Median dose: Australasia, 1.33 g/L; USA, 1.5-2.0; UK, 2.6-3.5; France, 3.5-4.0; Germany, 6.0) On the other hand, we don't wear our clothes for as long before washing them, and so we wash much more frequently, which seems to even the two sides out.


We all know bleach and it's variety of uses - from cleaning nappies and toilets to cleaning the concrete path - but does everyone also realise the DANGERS?

Mixing household bleach with any other preparation can be dangerous, and particularly with preparations containing ammonia. The mixing of Chlorine and Ammonia leads to the formation of chloramines, which form acrid fumes and cause respiratory distress but have no permanent consequences. If swallowed, household bleach causes immediate vomiting. The treatment for ingestion of bleach is to swallow immediately one or more of milk, egg white, starch paste or milk of magnesia - AND seek medical assistance! Avoid giving sodium bicarbonate because it releases carbon dioxide.

flowerCloudy Ammonia

When ammonia was first made from coal tar, the solutions were very murky. Later, the "Haber" process for fixing the nitrogen of the air gave a very pure product, but by this time people were used to "cloudy ammonia". For this reason soap is added to keep pure, clear ammonia - "cloudy".

Ammonia vapour is extremely irritating and the solution is very alkaline and acts as a caustic.

A little ammonia in a dish of hot water placed in a cold oven overnight will saponify the fat to a certain extent and make oven cleaning easier.

If ammonia is swallowed, the general rules to follow are:

flower"Whiter than White"....

In the 'good old days' we added washing blue so that cotton aging naturally to yellow would look white. Today, very small amounts of fluorescers are added to detergent powders. They are in fact already in the new, gleaming business shirt when you buy it, but wear and washing remove them. These compounds absorb ultraviolet light (which is invisible) and re-emit blue light (which yellow fabrics do not reflect fully from sunlight), and so restore the mixture of colours reflected, to that which a white fabric would reflect. The exact nature of brighteners differs with geographical location.

We are conditioned to blue-white as the accepted hue for cleanliness, whereas in South America a red-white colouration is the culturally accepted colour for clean.

HA Campbell