How Laundry Detergent Works

Additional Components of Laundry Detergent

Although surfactants are at the heart of laundry detergent's ability to clean fabrics, other ingredients can help detergents clean better, brighten clothes or smell better. As described previously, some types of surfactants typically do not work well in hard water due to the excess positive ions present. Additives called builders can help detergents to work better under hard water conditions. Builders accomplish this feat by removing calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+) ions in hard water by binding to them. This allows the surfactants, especially anionic surfactants, to bind to more grime, rather than the positively charged ions in the wash water. Builders also are bases, so they work to neutralize acid and can help disrupt chemical bonds. Another benefit of adding builders to laundry detergents is that manufacturers can use less surfactant, since the builders make the surfactant more efficient. Some examples of builders include sodium tripolyphosphate (STTP) and zeolites [source: EPA].

Detergents can also include components that make clothes whiter or brighter. The most common whitening agents are bleaches. Bleaches contain peroxides, which can oxidize fabrics [source: EPA]. Fluorescent whiteners and brighteners are also added to some laundry detergents because they minimize the yellowing of fabrics. These additives work by absorbing ultraviolet light and emitting back visible blue light, which can mask the yellow that may make colors appear faded and whites appear dingy.

Enzymes are naturally occurring biologic agents present in many detergents in varying concentrations. These enzymes are typically classified into the following categories and are similar to the enzymes used by your body to digest food:

  • Proteases: help break down proteins
  • Lipases: help break down fat
  • Amylases: help break down starches [source: Basketter]

These enzymes help break down food particles that are present on clothing by catalyzing, or speeding up, the decomposition process. A point to consider is that enzymes are biological products that can break down over time. Therefore, detergents can also contain enzyme stabilizers, which protect the enzymes and help them function.

Some other components include fragrance and coloring, which give laundry detergents their distinctive scents and appearance. Detergents sometimes contain trace amounts of dye, which is not enough to dye your actual clothing. However, on top of making your laundry detergent more visually appealing, dyes can show you when there is still detergent left on your clothes after the wash cycle.

Lastly, fillers help dilute and distribute the active ingredients to their proper dosages. Powder and liquid detergents use different fillers. The major filler in powder detergents is sodium sulphate, which provides the granular powdery texture. The primary filler in liquid detergents is water.

In the next page, we will examine some more similarities and differences between powder and liquid detergents.