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It Ain’t Necessarily So

September 29, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 39

My friend Walter Opdycke and I have been making quality cleaning products for a variety of industries, including laundry, for the past 30 years. About two decades ago, Walt observed that the constantly changing regulatory climate under which we toiled would eventually limit our raw ­material selection to only soap and soda ash.

The day has come. Newscripts recently waxed enthusiastic about Charlie’s Soap, “a laundry detergent brand that is popular among folks concerned about laundry residues” (C&EN, July 7, page 40). Charlie’s Soap is good, we are told, because it contains fewer ingredients than other detergents. It seems to contain only soap and soda ash.

Charlie’s Soap might actually work—if you are washing in distilled water. That would include approximately none of us. Any hardness in the water at all will precipitate the soda ash as calcium and magnesium carbonate. Even worse, the soap will precipitate as scum.

Those diapers you were trying to wash to a residue-free condition will be loaded with sharp-edged crystals of calcium carbonate, which will abrade the fibers of the diaper, shortening its life. Additionally, that residue will be alkaline in nature, and hence irritating to the poor child of the ignorant parent. The diapers will also be loaded with soap scum that, in the short term, will make them appear gray and dingy. In the long run, the accumulated scum will make the diaper harsh to the feel and no longer absorbent.

Formulating any kind of product to the fewest number of ingredients is a truly bizarre, and wholly irrational, goal. Ask anyone who has ever said it for the reason why. I have yet to hear an answer to that question. Mother Nature doesn’t hold herself to such an unrealistic goal. In a recent issue of Inform (published by the American Oil Chemists’ Society), the ingredient list of a common chicken egg was published. The list, almost certainly not exhaustive, contained about 100 different ingredients.

Unfortunately, the statement about the fewest ingredients goal is never challenged. It’s the kind of thing you would expect to see from Consumer Reports or Greenpeace. But it’s not the way to get things clean. It’s disappointing that C&EN reported it unchallenged.

I could go on and on about this one little story. Dryer sheets add so little hydrophobic wax to fabrics that they have virtually no effect on absorbency. (Rinse-cycle fabric softeners are a different story.) The ammonia stink from diapers is not due to microbes not removed during washing. The diapers do not come out of the dryer sterile, of course, but they are sanitary. The microbial load comes from what the baby deposits in the diaper.

The next time you need to know how to get something clean, contact Walt or me. Don’t depend on someone who is trying to make a buck by pandering to the public’s fear of chemicals.

Dave McCall



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