If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Consumer Products

Selling Detergents One Load At A Time

Cleaning-product makers hope the coming U.S. launch of laundry capsules succeeds where past attempts have failed

by Michael McCoy
January 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 4

Credit: Henkel
Henkel develops new detergents at its laboratories in Düsseldorf, Germany.
A researcher at Henkel’s home care laboratory in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Credit: Henkel
Henkel develops new detergents at its laboratories in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Launched with much fanfare, Colgate-Palmolive’s Action bleach introduced U.S. consumers to a completely new mode of laundry product delivery. Using a pouch fashioned from a water-soluble film to dispense a single dose of chlorinated bleach, Action made whitening clothes quick and spill-free.

That was 1962, and the product flopped. Around the same time, Procter & Gamble came out with Salvo laundry detergent tablets. By the 1970s they too were gone from store shelves. In the 1980s, P&G tried Cheer Power Pouches, a single-dose laundry paste packaged in a water-soluble film, but it went nowhere. European detergent makers launched laundry tablets in the 1990s, but they fizzled in most countries.

Undaunted in their efforts to bring some pizzazz to a mature market, detergent companies are about to try single-dose products once more, this time with liquids. Within the next two months, Americans will be able to buy single-dose laundry capsules from P&G and other major household product manufacturers. But after several failures, will consumers finally accept the 50-year-old concept?

Cleaning-product makers and their suppliers of chemical raw materials, films, and packaging services are betting heavily that the time is ripe for single-dose detergents. They make the case that technology and consumer preferences have evolved sufficiently for the concept to stick permanently this time around.

One evangelist for single-dose products is P. Scott Bening, chief executive officer of MonoSol. The Indiana-based firm is the only significant U.S. producer of polyvinyl alcohol film, the material that will be used to package the new laundry detergents. It was a MonoSol film that enveloped the original Action bleach, and MonoSol films are sure to be found among the coming crop of single-dose laundry detergents as well.

According to Bening, film technology has come a long way in the five decades since single-dose products debuted. Films based on the polyvinyl alcohol resin available in the 1960s from chemical companies such as DuPont and Celanese interacted poorly with the product being delivered. Because of gradual reactions with the ingredients inside, films that dissolved quickly when fresh off the manufacturing line became less soluble after sitting on store shelves for a month or two.

In the mid-1980s, MonoSol worked with DuPont to develop films that were more compatible with alkaline substances such as detergents. The effort failed.

“Getting a film formulation to remain stable when in direct contact with the cleaning products was very tricky,” Bening says. “Even when it was successfully accomplished, the actual processing of the film was not up to requirements.” It took another decade for MonoSol to hit on stable, highly soluble films with the necessary thickness and defect control to successfully package and dispense detergents.

As MonoSol and its competitors elsewhere in the world were perfecting water-soluble films, home care product manufacturers were searching diligently for the right formula for single-dose detergents.

U.S. detergent makers attempted tablets—essentially compressed laundry powders—in the 1960s, recounts Thomas Müller-Kirschbaum, senior vice president for R&D, technology, and supply chain with the laundry and home care business of Henkel, a German firm that is one of the world’s top detergent makers.

A P&G commercial for Salvo at the time touted the hockey-puck-like product as “the dirt bomb.” But plagued by a slow rate of dissolution, the tablets often didn’t fully disintegrate, leaving partially consumed pucks among the clean clothes. Consumers rebelled, and the tablets were eventually withdrawn.

European companies launched tablets for the first time in 1998. According to Müller-Kirschbaum, the region’s three main detergent marketers came out with three different technologies intended to overcome the dissolution problem. One company created a tablet that was gently pressed and then coated. Another firm’s tablets contained salts intended to aid dissolution. And Henkel worked with a drug company to adapt a cellulosic disintegrant similar to what helps aspirin dissolve.

Credit: Procter & Gamble
An image of Procter & Gamble’s Tide Pods laundry detergent.
Credit: Procter & Gamble

Technologies from Henkel’s competitors had shortcomings—tablets either crumbled in the package or didn’t dissolve in the wash—and the industry migrated to the Henkel approach, according to Müller-Kirschbaum. But although tablets took root in Europe, they never attained more than 10% of the market. In recent years they have been losing market share by about 1% per year, Müller-Kirschbaum says.

Europe’s cleaning-product makers had better luck with single-dose liquids, which they packaged in polyvinyl alcohol film and introduced in the early 2000s. The products didn’t catch on in Germany, but they carved out a niche in the U.K. and France, Müller-Kirschbaum explains. And over the past year, in the U.K. in particular, they have started to take off. “There’s renewed interest in mono-dose,” he says.

Ian Bell, head of home care research at Euromonitor International, a provider of strategy research for consumer markets, says it’s not a surprise that single-dose detergents have caught on in the U.K. “The U.K. is a sucker for anything new, especially if it’s nicely packaged and colored,” he says. “And people like that they can just chuck it in and forget about it.” The products are also a boon to people who have trouble transporting heavy boxes or bottles of detergent.

Nonexistent before 2000, single-dose liquids captured a 16% share of the U.K. detergent market by value last year, Bell says. Euromonitor predicts they will achieve a 22% share by 2016.

Henkel doesn’t market detergents in the U.K., but it is rolling out single-dose products in other countries. For example, Henkel came out with a liquid capsule in Italy last year under the Dixan brand. And this year the German company reintroduced capsules in its home country as part of its flagship Persil brand.

Henkel will soon be doing the same in the U.S. In the coming weeks, Purex UltraPacks, a single-dose liquid detergent packaged in polyvinyl alcohol film, will be hitting U.S. store shelves. It will come in a “Mountain Breeze” scent and a “Free & Clear” version without perfumes or dyes.

The bigger shoe to fall in the U.S. will be the debut of a single-dose version of Tide, the flagship detergent from P&G and the leading U.S. laundry detergent by far. P&G CEO Robert A. McDonald told analysts last fall that he expects the product, called Tide Pods, to eventually capture 30% of the U.S. detergent market. “It’s the most concentrated form of laundry detergent you can get, so it’s better for the environment; it’s better for space and consumers’ homes,” he said. “It has great, great cleaning performance. Everybody wins with Tide Pods.”

Cincinnati-based P&G had intended to roll out Tide Pods in September 2011, but the company put the launch on hold, claiming that it needed time to prepare for what it anticipates will be strong demand. Tide Pods are now expected to start appearing on shelves next month.

A P&G spokeswoman says the firm isn’t talking about Tide Pods until after the launch. An innovation brochure on P&G’s website describes Tide Pods as having three chambers containing different ingredients, allowing “the unique chemistry matrix to work synergistically in the wash for excellent results.” The single-dose liquids from Henkel and from P&G in Europe, in contrast, have just one chamber.

P&G also touts a new detergent formula that is twice as compact as Tide liquid, which itself is twice as compact as it was a few years ago when the company shrank the size of its detergent bottles. And P&G says it is using a new polyvinyl alcohol film that dissolves completely in the wash, even in cold water.

Tide Pods are the result of years of development that included 6,000 consumers and more than 450 packaging and product sketches, P&G says. Some industry watchers have questioned why the company would delay the launch of a product in which it has invested so much, but others say the ramp-up to single-dose detergents is a major undertaking for the industry’s supply chain that requires time to do right.

MonoSol, for example, built a large new polyvinyl alcohol film plant in La Porte, Ind., four years ago. Nonetheless, the company has had to expand further to keep up with customer demand for film, Bening says. MonoSol raised its capacity by 60% over the past two years and will expand it another 20% this year, he reports.

Multi-Pack, a contract packager of detergents and other products in pouches made of water-soluble film, is “running 24/7” to help customers fill the supply pipeline for the new detergents, says Don Fritz, vice president of sales. “For half of November and all of December we were making as many laundry pouches as we could make for a variety of customers for the pipeline fill.”

Credit: MonoSol
To support detergent industry customers, MonoSol has added film capacity at its plant in Indiana.
An image of polyvinyl alcohol film being produced at MonoSol.
Credit: MonoSol
To support detergent industry customers, MonoSol has added film capacity at its plant in Indiana.

To accommodate growth in cleaning products and other sectors, Multi-Pack moved to a new Chicago-area facility a year ago that quadrupled its square footage. And whereas at the previous location the company was operating one shift per day on three packaging lines, Fritz says, it’s now running around the clock on seven lines.

Like MonoSol, Multi-Pack is a pioneer in single-dose products. It packaged Colgate’s Action bleach back in 1962 and helped P&G roll out Cheer Power Pouches in the 1980s. Fritz won’t name the company’s current customers, but he notes, “it’s fair to say that we work with the major laundry product brands.”

Although Fritz and colleagues at Multi-Pack have seen their share of single-dose failures in the past, he’s confident that they have the critical mass to succeed this time.

Executives with chemical companies that supply the cleaning-product industry also think single-dose laundry detergents are here to stay. Florence Lambert, innovation and business development director for Rhodia’s Novecare home and personal care business, points out that consumers have become accustomed to capsules and tablets through their proliferation in the automatic dishwasher detergent section of retail stores.

In that business, the rise of single-dose products in the U.S. coincided with the phaseout of phosphates from automatic dishwasher detergents (C&EN, Jan. 24, 2011, page 12). Faced with subpar performance from phosphate-free versions of the traditional powder and gel dishwasher detergents, consumers turned to premium capsules such as P&G’s Cascade ActionPacs and Reckitt Benckiser’s Finish Quantum. They liked the performance as well as the convenience.

“The spillover perception is producing growing acceptance of unit doses in other market areas such as laundry,” Lambert says. “Convenience and safety benefits drive this: simple dosing, more compact packaging, and safety or convenience of handling.”

And even in the laundry room, Multi-Pack’s Fritz points out, consumers have grown familiar with capsules through a new breed of stain-fighting product. Clorox 2 Packs from Clorox, OxiClean Max Force Power Paks from Church & Dwight, and Tide Stain Release from P&G are all oxygen-bleach-based stain removal capsules packaged in polyvinyl alcohol film pouches.

Some of them are little more than traditional stain removal powders presented in a new form. Creating the single-dose liquid laundry detergents, in contrast, will require formulation changes and some new chemistry. The introduction of multichamber capsules, meanwhile, opens the possibility of combining previously incompatible ingredients.

Credit: Henkel
An image of Henkel’s Purex UltraPacks laundry detergent.
Credit: Henkel

When Henkel introduces Purex Ultra­Packs in the coming weeks, Müller-Kirschbaum notes, the company will have the advantage of its decade of European experience with single-dose liquids packaged in polyvinyl alcohol film. Over those years, he says, Henkel has improved its ability to combine disparate ingredients in a high-surfactant formula.

“Ten years ago it was not so easy to put in high amounts of enzymes and other performance ingredients without getting a highly viscous environment and reduced enzyme stability,” Müller-Kirschbaum says. Acrylic polymers, added to detergents to inhibit redeposition of stains, are a particular challenge because their tendency to raise viscosity is magnified in a highly concentrated detergent.

Formulation challenges notwithstanding, the main ingredients in today’s concentrated single-dose products are similar to those in traditional detergents, according to Müller-Kirschbaum. “It is not so much one miracle ingredient but learning how to handle superconcentrated mixtures,” he says.

Still, chemical company executives see opportunity in the new products. Rhodia’s Lambert says her firm is selling its performance polymers, sold under the Repel-O-Tex name, to manufacturers of tablets and capsules. “These polymers provide soil release benefits and in some cases also whiteness maintenance and boosting of primary detergency,” she says. “It’s a growing market.”


Josef Koester, head of marketing and product management for BASF’s home and personal care business, points out that a challenge of packaging cleaning products in a water-soluble film is the need to keep water content to a minimum. Also key are highly active ingredients that help formulators create concentrated products, Koester says. BASF offers several such surfactants and polymers, he adds.

Dow Chemical is adapting to meet the needs of customers that are launching detergent capsules, according to Nilesh Shah, R&D director for the firm’s home and personal care business. For example, dispersant polymers sold as water-based solutions aren’t compatible with water-soluble films, so Dow is also offering them in granulated and spray-dried forms.

In general, Shah says, ingredients that provide multiple benefits are prized by formulators of single-dose detergents because they help keep products compact. He sees an opportunity for ingredients such as Dow’s Butyl Carbitol and Dowanol PnB glycol ethers because they can both act as solvents in the water-free capsules and then as degreasing agents once in the wash.

Getting highly concentrated surfactants to disperse through the wash instead of gelling up when they hit the water is an added challenge with capsules. “In the phase diagram there are places where you can get stuck in a gel,” Shah says, “and taking that gel apart is not easy.” A multifunctional, hydrophobic solvent such as Dowanol PnB offers a better solution to the gelling problem than the common solvents used in traditional detergents, he says.

Although chemical companies are eager to help their customers roll out the new detergents, they are also aware from the history of the single-dose form that success is not ensured. The main technical challenges have been solved, Shah says, but “the jury is still out” on whether consumers are ready for them.

Skeptics say the person who does the wash in U.S. households may balk at the idea of tossing in the same capsule regardless of wash size or level of soiling. But the truth, Shah says, is that consumers generally add too much of today’s concentrated liquid detergents. “Today, in my view, the consumer has too much control over how much they use,” he says. “In general, they are overdosing.”

With single-dose detergents, Shah contends, fabric care product makers are vying to take back control of cleaning—the central part of the laundering process—while allowing the consumer to customize secondary benefits such as fragrance, stain removal, and softening with ancillary products.

Are the many people who tackle clothes washing with their own special formulas and protocols—Procter & Gamble calls them master chemists—prepared to cede control of dosing? P&G thinks so. “Consumers are ready for a radical transformation of the laundry process,” the company’s brochure says.

The next few months will tell if that prediction is finally right. ◾


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.