The Chemistry of Clothes Washing – Liquid Detergents


No discussion of laundry detergents is complete without discussing liquid detergents.

It’s probably fair to say that liquid laundry detergents play second fiddle to powdered detergents.  Having said that, this is probably based more on perception than performance, with many people thinking that when you buy a liquid detergent you are paying for a lot of water.

This is of course partially true, but not to the degree you may think.  Whereas dishwashing detergents are between 80 to 90% water in general, laundry detergents are typically around 50 to 60%.

Liquid detergents generally use non-ionic surfactants rather than anionic surfactants, which doesn’t mean much in terms of cleaning other than that they tend to be a little more versatile in terms of their stain removal properties.

The two standout performers in terms of liquids are Dynamo and BioZet, for different reasons.  Whereas the BioZet (which also comes in a powder) is a largely enzyme-based product, the Dynamo is a very sophisticated formula where they have managed to suspend material in the liquid that is not normally liquid soluble, which gives the liquid an opaque appearance.  Technically, this makes it a suspension rather than a solution, but let’s not go into that for now.

Specifically, Dynamo has managed to suspend perborate and percarbonates materials in their (laundry bleaches), as well as adding a sophisticated enzyme matrix.

Also, liquids have the advantage of providing a prewash capability.  That is, if you had a particular stain, you would just rub a bit of the liquid into the stain before putting it in the wash.  If you tried the same thing with a powdered detergent, you would get fluorescent burns in the material (from the fluorescing agents).

And, of course, you do not need to worry about solubility of the liquids, so they are certainly a good option for cold water washing, if that’s what you wanted to do.

Another interesting market trend that has occurred in recent years is that for many of the brands on the market, they are available as both liquid and powder, which did not used to be the way things were.  It used to be the case that if you wanted a powder you bought one brand and if you wanted a liquid you bought another brand.

Oh, and here’s a final tip if you are using liquids.  One of the most annoying things about liquid detergents is that if you use the cap to measure out the liquid, then it makes a mess when you put it back on the bottle.  A simple solution that I have used when I have used liquids is that you simply toss the lid in with the wash.  Retrieve it afterwards, and it’s nice and clean so it doesn’t make a mess when you put it back on the bottle.

Okay, tomorrow I will summarise things and go through a few common mistakes that people make.  Then we’ll start looking at pre-washes.

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