How Laundry Detergent Works

Surfactants: Laundry Detergent's Cleaning Power

All laundry detergent ingredients have a job to do, but the one group that's really crucial to getting your clothes clean are surfactants. The word surfactant stems from the combination of words "surface-active agents." Surface-active agents get their name from their unique chemical structure, which allows them to interact with two different types of surfaces, such as oil and water. The tail of a surfactant molecule is hydrophobic, or not attracted to water. What the hydrophobic end is attracted to is grease and dirt. The head of the surfactant molecule, on the other hand, is hydrophilic -- it's attracted to water [source: Silberberg].

So when a greasy piece of clothing is immersed in water with detergents containing surfactant, the tail of the surfactant molecules attach to the grease, and the head end of the molecule is attracted to the water. When the washing machine agitates the clothes, the molecules form tiny spheres, which stay suspended in the water and are rinsed away when the water is drained. Therefore, the prime benefit of surfactants is their ability to draw grime out of clothing while making sure it doesn't return to the fabrics.

Essentially, there are four main types of surfactants, with the first three used the most in laundry detergents, and their actions depend on their interactions with ions. Ions are charged particles due to the gain or loss of electrons. Ions can be positive such as calcium, Ca2+, or negative such as chloride, Cl-.

  1. Anionic surfactants are negatively charged in solution. However, they do not work as well by themselves in hard water. This is because hard water has many positively charged ions presents such as calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+). Since anionic surfactants are negative they are attracted to the positive ions and bind, making them unable to bind to other molecules in solution.
  2. Nonionic surfactants have no charge. Therefore, they are not as easily impaired under hard water conditions, since they are not attracted to the positive ions.
  3. Cationic surfactants are positively charged in solution. They help the anionic surfactant molecules pack in at the water/dirt interface thereby allowing the anionic surfactants to pull more dirt away.
  4. Amphoteric or zwitterionic surfactants are both positively and negatively charged. These surfactants are very mild and are often found in gentler cleansers such as hand soaps, shampoos and cosmetics. [source: Silberberg].

Read on to learn about some other ingredients that help detergents do their job.