The Chemistry of Clothes Washing #7: Enzymes


Without question the most exotic chemicals in any laundry powder are the enzymes.

Enzymes are chemical specialists.  If they were people, they’d be neurosurgeons or paediatric gastroenterologists.

Each enzyme has a particular thing it is very good at.  The first product to use enzymes on the market was NapiSan, which used enzymes that could even remove blood, which was virtually impossible up to that point.

So the inclusion of enzymes in laundry detergents involves using chemicals that target very specific types of stains.  Normally these are just one component of a premium brand detergent, but BioZet have taken a whole new approach, in that they market a detergent in which the cleaning power is almost entirely enzyme – based.  That is, they make a big thing out of the fact that they contain no bleaches or fluorescing agents, and only a mild surfactant base.

In their place, they have a blend of specialised enzymes which, we are told, work very well.  I haven’t tried this myself (perhaps others can report) but the idea certainly seems sound in principle.

But enzymes have another role.  White garments, particularly cotton, tend to take on a yellowish hue after a while.  This is caused by tiny cotton fragments breaking off and pointing up in the air.

This has the effect of scattering the light as it hits the garment, resulting in a yellowish colour.  Enzymes are able to attack these little cotton strands (the term is “pilling”) and remove them.

This restores be white colour to be garment.

Incidentally, when enzymes were first used, and their first big scalp in terms of recalcitrant stains was blood, they once caused a bit of a problem.

There was a particular brand (it may have been BioZet but I am not sure) that in their advertisement on TV showed little Pac-man type creatures going around gobbling up blood, the message of course being that this product could remove blood stains.

What they hadn’t accounted for, however, was the workers in the factory who packed this stuff.  They saw this and and quite reasonably thought to themselves “wait a minute – if this stuff eats up blood, what is it doing to us – we work with it every day.”

This resulted in a strike, which wasn’t resolved until the workers were reassured that there were no health risks involved.

Okay, that’s pretty much it for all the individual components of laundry detergents – tomorrow I’ll pull it all together.

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