How Laundry Detergent Ingredients Work

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Laundry detergents have come a long way since the first bar soaps made from animal fat and lye were offered for sale in the 1700s. The introduction of synthetic detergents to the market place in the 1950s offered homemakers more options of fabric care. But it was the 1970s that brought the most significant innovation in advanced cleaning, the addition of enzymes that "attack" specific types of stains.

It is those enzymes that separate the men from the boys when it comes to clean laundry.

I had the opportunity to sit down with the head of Research and Development for Sun Products Corp, Dr. Chuck Crawford to discuss the ingredients and differences in today's laundry detergents. His explanations will help you understand what you are reading on your detergent label and help you select the best product for your laundry.

Basic Detergent Formulas

Every detergent manufacturer has secret ingredients and mixtures to produce their specific brands. But, here are the components in almost every product:


  • make water-insoluble materials (like oil) soluble and easier to remove from fabric and are the predominant contributor to cleaning
  • Anionic surfactants have a negatively charged ion to attract a broad range of soil. Formulas include linear alkylbenzene sulfonates, sodium alkyl ether sulfates, alkyl sulfates, methyl ester sulfonates
  • Nonionic surfactants have no charge and serve best in attracting dust, body soil and oil. Formulas include alcohol ethoxylates and methyl ester ethoxylates

    Functional Materials

  • pH modifiers to balance acids and bases in water
  • optical brighteners (bleach alternative)
  • water conditioners to manage hard water and inhibit dye transfer
  • anti-repdeposition technologies to keep soil suspended in water

    Catalytic Enzymes

  • different enzymes target specific soils and the catalytic action breaks soil into smaller molecules to be washed away
  • proteases - degrade protein based soils
  • amylases - degrade starch based or carbohydrate soils
  • cellulases - break down cotton fibers to release soils
  • lipases - degrade fat based soils
  • mannanase - degrades food based stains
  • pectinase - degrades fruit based stains


  • fragrances influence the perception of cleanliness
    Many of these ingredients can be manufactured from plants; others are synthetic. It is the amount of each ingredient and how they are combined that affects the cleaning ability of the detergent.

    How Detergents Work in Cleaning Clothes

    To get the best results from any laundry detergent, there is a three-fold process of chemical energy, thermal energy and mechanical energy that must be used to wash clothes.

    The chemical energy is, of course, the laundry detergent. The ingredients in the laundry detergent chosen will affect the the final results. Less expensive detergents have fewer or no enzymes. Fewer enzymes equal less cleaning power.

    Thermal energy pertains to water temperature. Different detergents are formulated to work best at different temperatures. Be sure to read the directions to select the best product for your laundry.

    Mechanical energy comes from either a washer or a person hand-washing.

    How to Select the Best Detergent

    There are dozens of choices on the laundry detergent shelves - liquid, powder, single-use doses. How do you chose? The best choice is the one that suits the family’s needs in terms of effectiveness on specific soils, personal preference for fragrance, form (powder, liquid or single dose) and price.

    Here's how to start. Assess your family's laundry - types of stains, amount of body soil. If most of the garments are only lightly soiled with few stains, you may find that a less expensive detergent and a good stain pretreater is all you need. If you have heavy soil, exercise clothing with lots of body odor and lots of food/grease/outside stains; you need a heavy duty detergent.

    Next, read the laundry detergent labels or go online to read the ingredients. It is important to look for surfactants and enzymes to remove soil and stains. Less expensive detergents - bargain brands - have fewer of these components and will not clean as well. You may find that having two formulas on your laundry shelf will serve your needs - one detergent for lightly soiled clothes and one for heavily soiled clothes.

    Although most detergents will work in cold water, it is better to chose one formulated for cold water if you plan to use cold water exclusively.

    You can now find liquids and powders in concentrated or ultra formulas. Although packaged in smaller sizes, they provide the same cleaning power as their larger unconcentrated counterparts. To determine the correct amount to use, follow the label instructions and use the companion measuring cap or scoop. These products simply have the extra water or fillers removed making them easier and less expensive to ship and store. The single-dose packs and pods are concentrated even further and may actually save you money by preventing overuse.

    Many people chose their laundry detergent based on scent. Just remember that "smelling clean" is not the same as being clean. Be sure that soil is actually being removed and not just covered up with perfume.
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