Q:

How does laundry detergent work?

A:

Laundry detergents work by lowering the surface tension of water, improving its ability to dissolve stains from clothing. Detergents emulsify dirt so it drains with the wash water instead of redepositing on the clothes in the machine.

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Water is a polar solvent. However, many of the stains on laundry are nonpolar, fat-based stains. The body produces oily waste products and deposits them on the clothes. The surfactants in detergent create a non-polar end on the water molecule, allowing it to dissolve such oily stains. While the detergent allows the water to attach to the oil stain, the mechanical agitation of the washing machine lifts the stain from the cloth. While soaps and detergents work similarly, soaps react with minerals in the water to form soap scum that sometimes deposits back onto the clean clothes.

Detergent manufacturers add other chemicals to the product to enhance its stain removal properties. Oxidizers react chemically with stains to lighten them so they become less apparent. Enzymes are protein-based chemicals that speed up the chemical reactions required for cleaning, reducing the time required for the wash cycle. Laundry products also include sodium and potassium hydroxide. These hydroxides provide ions that help to facilitate chemical reactions for cleaning. Water softeners help to improve the ability of detergents to bind with fats that cause stains.

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