Chemical Toxins in Clothes?

There have been several cases of people experiencing chemical irritation or burns from shoes, shirts, and even furniture, with one furniture manufacturer being sued for $10 million for the injuries that have been caused.

The culprit is dimethyl fumarate, a chemical that was banned as a fungicide in Europe in 1998, and for imported goods in 2009 – but unfortunately is still legal in Australia. Other potential culprits are rubber accelerants, in the case of shoes.

In each case, the Chinese have added a chemical that is effective and cheap to an item without due care for consumer safety, in a manner that would not be acceptable in Australia.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution – wash them before using them. The chemicals will be easily removed by a normal wash, and will present no further problems.

An Alternative Bleach

Modern laundry detergents are highly sophisticated formulations that are able to remove most stains if used correctly.  One of the ways they do this is with bleach – laundry bleaches such as perborates and percarbonates.

The term “bleach” is a generic term – that is, it does not refer to any one particular chemical.  Most commonly, of course, it refers to the stuff that we put in swimming pools, either sodium or calcium hypochlorite.  This is the same stuff that is in Exit Mould, and any of the products that we buy from the supermarket or hardware store that are simply called “bleach”

The difference simply refers to their respective strengths.  In particular, they are oxidisers. That is, they simply oxidise things.  Many food stains for the example are large, complex dye molecules which are susceptible to oxidation.

If the laundry bleaches don’t do it, however, there is the option of using a stand alone bleach.  The problem with this, however, is that it can also oxidise the fabric – particularly cotton.

Bleach was the only way my mother knew how to get grass stains out of my cricket whites.  And consequently, they didn’t last long.  They were polyester cotton, so they were not as prone to attack as ordinary cotton, but they eventually fell apart anyway.  But there is another option – hydrogen peroxide.

I haven’t raised its in discussions before, simply because I didn’t think it was available over the counter.  Quite by accident, however, I found a company in Wangara – Tasman Chemicals – that sell it over the counter as a 50% solution, which is mighty strong.

In comparison with ordinary bleach, there are some pluses and minuses.  On the plus side, it doesn’t smell, or to be exact, it has a very fresh smell.  The reason is that it composes spontaneously into water and oxygen.  Pure oxygen has a very fresh smell, and that’s what you smell when you use it.

On the minus side, it is worse when you get it on your skin.  Or eyes.  It stings like blazes, and turns your skin white.  It eventually recovers, but it’s a very unpleasant experience – so if you are going to use it, wear gloves.

Tasman tell me that they sell its as a booster for laundry powders – that is, you add it to your wash to boost the bleaching power of your laundry detergent.  Not a bad idea if you were using a cheaper detergent.  But I don’t know how much they sell it for or whether it would be economical.

But if you had a spot stain you wanted to remove, you could spot it on the garments.  I wouldn’t use it at 50% – I’d dilute it down to 10% (one in five) and see how it went.

It would also be a handy mould remover.

As an aside, it used to be used as a disinfectant for contact lenses – and the idea is that you would neutralise it before you put the lenses on the next morning.  Unfortunately, everyone who used this at some stage, me included, forgot to neutralise it.  The consequence was that when you put it in your eye, it stung like blazes, and the problem was that you couldn’t get it out, because the stinging sensation meant that you closed your eye instinctively.

Not pleasant.

So there you go – hydrogen peroxide is a more pleasant smelling option to applications where you would normally use bleach.  But store it in a cool, dark place – it decomposes to water and oxygen upon exposure to light and heat.

The Chemistry of Clothes Washing #13: Summary

The last dozen posts or so have all discussed various aspects of washing clothes.  Now I’ll summarise it all and make a few comments about some mistakes that people make.

You can wash in hot or cold water using powder or liquid detergents.  Detergents range from the el cheapo brands that don’t contain much more than a basic surfactants and a bit of washing soda, to premium brands that contain alkaline cleaning salts (washing soda and silicates), surfactants, builders, bleaches, enzymes, antiredeposition agents, fluorescing agents and of course fragrances.

In general a hot wash will outperform a cold wash, for two main reasons – firstly, the laundry bleaches are less active in cold water, and secondly, the enzymes are completely inactive in cold water.

Having said that however, many people wash in cold water with acceptable results.  The success of Cold Power as a brand is testament to this.  The surfactants do a good enough job of cleaning, and the enzymes work well enough to keep people happy – the fact they don’t contain laundry bleaches is a factor, but the lack of brightness of the clothes is often not an issue.

And now, here is the most common mistake that people make.

They decide that they need to cut down their energy bills, so they switch from hot wash to cold wash.  Then they think “why don’t I try to save even more money – I’ll switch from my premium brand detergent to a generic brand – surely they’re all the same.”

Then they think “why don’t I save even more money – I’ll cut down on the amount of detergent in the wash.”

This becomes a frog-in-the-hot-water situation – each modification they make to their washing technique results in a poorer and poorer wash.  But since the clothes all look the same, they don’t notice.

In my first job in the industry, I was involved with the development of Preen Trigger, and it was my job to troubleshoot customer complaints.  Occasionally, we would get people saying that Preen had stained their clothes.  Without exception, what we got when the customer sent in their garments, was a garment that was dirty all over except for the one spot where they had sprayed Preen.  Thus, they were interpreting the white spot as a stain, when in fact be very opposite was the case. In fact, the overall greyness of their clothes which was highlighted by the clean white spot told me that they had been using a poor quality detergent without antiredeposition agents, as this is exactly what you get – the dirt that washes out just redeposits somewhere else.

And I think that most people that ring up Shannon Lush’s show with questions about their clothes fall into this category – from memory there was one caller who couldn’t get deodorant stains off clothes, and another one who couldn’t get a smell out of the clothes.  In each case my reply would have been to ask them how they washed their clothes.  I would then have advised them to switch to a premium brand detergent and use either warm or hot water.

The simple fact is that modern detergents are very sophisticated products, with a cocktail of ingredients that are able to achieve levels of cleanliness that were unheard of years ago.  Consequently, there are not many stains that cannot be removed with the right detergent and/or and enzyme-based prewash.

And this was exactly the problem with the Preen complaints. In every case, the customer was using a cold wash with a generic brand detergent.  And for some unknown reason, some bright spark in a marketing department somewhere decided to market them as a “super concentrate” – that is, they expected people to believe that not only were they getting a cheaper product, but they were getting a more concentrated product, so they used less.

So the lesson is, if you are going to use a cold wash, don’t compromise on the quality of the detergent. If you are using a hot wash, you have more leeway with the cheaper brands.

Another good idea for getting better results is to choose a washing cycle with a pre-soak capability.  Washing machine manufacturers have at last woken up to something that I have known for years – it is the chemicals that do most of the work, not the agitation.  All agitation does is damage clothes.  Thus, modern washing machines all have very gentle agitation cycles.  Amongst other things, this is a reflection of the advances in detergent performance, particularly enzyme technology.

If you have a particular stain, one approach with a liquid detergent is to rub it into the stain before you do the wash – I think Dynamo even used to have this on their ads.  It’s not a good idea to do this with powdered detergents, as the more concentrated fluorescing agents can burn the clothes – although if it’s a white garment you won’t notice.

Okay, that’s all I can think of with regards to washing clothes.  Tomorrow I’ll say a bit about external treatments – particularly the use of stand alone bleaches if the washing doesn’t do the job.  If there are any aspects of clothes washing that I haven’t covered and you wish me to, please post a question in the Q&A section.

The Chemistry of Clothes Washing #12: Enzymes revisited.

Over the years the concept of the laundry prewash has changed.  Essentially, they used to be degreasers.

The idea was that a solvent would solublise an oil based stain (including things like inks) and allow them to be washed out in the water.  The trick with these was the washout part, as if it wasn’t done right, there could be a residual solvent smell, and this was occasionally the problem with Preen trigger.

Certainly, if you were to use an automotive prewash (that is, use an automotive degreaser as a laundry prewash) this is what you’d probably get if it was solvent-based – you can get the residual smell of the solvent.

So the early Preens and SARD products were sophisticated degreaser formulations.  This gradually changed, I think initially in an attempt to make the product cheaper by switching to water-based formulas, but perhaps also because the understanding of the requirements of the prewash had changed.

What sort of things do we use a prewash for anyway?  Is it mostly oils and greases, or is it things like mud, or food or wine stains?  If it is the former then a solvent-based product is the way to go, but if it is the latter, which seems to be the case, then enzyme-based products are the way to go.

But even as this changed in the marketplace, advances in enzyme technologies meant that they could now to a great degree work just as well on oil based stains as the earlier solvent-based formulas.

Enzymes are remarkable chemicals in that they are highly specific in terms of what they react with.  They are exceedingly large and complex molecules and all have names ending in “ase.”  For example glucose oxidation is an enzyme that oxidises glucose.  Proteinase is a molecule that reacts with proteins, and so on.

And so now more upmarket laundry formulations, as well as prewashes contain a cocktail of these things – each targeting a particular type of stain.

Protease targets proteins and is by far the most widely used class of enzyme.  It aids in the removal of food stains with a protein base such as eggs and meat, and also blood and grass.

Amylase enzymes work on food stains containing starch, such as rice, spaghetti sauce, potatoes, oats and gravy.

Lipases target oily and greasy stains such as collar grime, butter and oil, and some cosmetics such as lipstick.

Cellulase enzymes remove pilling and fuzz from cotton fabrics and have a whitening effect.

In fact, it could be argued that the enzymes are what separates the men from the boys in terms of washing formulations.

We will summarise things tomorrow, and look at some common mistakes that people make.

The Chemistry of Clothes Washing #11: Prewashes

The story of laundry prewashes is a fascinating story in itself.

The first one on the market in Australia was Preen aerosol.  It made a huge and immediate impact on the market for two reasons – firstly, the concept of spraying something onto a stain before washing it had never been heard of before, and secondly because it worked so well.

It’s extraordinarily good performance resulted from its use of trichloroethane as its solvent, which used to be drycleaning fluid.  Thus, you essentially hand the ability to spot dryclean your clothes.

The solvent-based formula was very good at getting out the kind of things that ordinary detergents wouldn’t, such as oils, greases, ink, lipsticks, shoe polish and so on.  It wasn’t so good at inorganic stains such as clay and mud.

It was followed soon after its introduction by Charge, a Johnson & Johnson product.  Charge was a water based formula which was utterly useless, and wasn’t even worthy to tie up the bootstraps of Preen.  Because it was water-based, the only type of stain for which it would outperform Preen was clay and mud, but these weren’t that hard to remove any way.

Some time later, SARD decided to get in on the act, with SARD Wonder Spray.  Unlike Charge, the SARD product was a serious competitor to Preen.  The reason for this is that it was also solvent-based, with an extraordinary 45% surfactant level (as opposed to about 12% for Preen).

The reason for such a high surfactant level was probably because they couldn’t figure out the right blend to enable it to do all the things that is required of a prewash – dissolve in the solvent, allow the solvent to dissolve a stain, allow it to be emulsified in the wash, and finally be washed out.  The Preen formula did this very effectively with only 12% surfactant, but the SARD product no doubt required 45% because they simply had not worked out quite how to do it as efficiently.

Anyhow, it worked.  I was out of the industry by the time it came onto the market, so I have never seen a direct performance comparison, but it’s highly likely that it worked just as well as Preen.

Unfortunately, for consumer products, performance is nowhere near as important as perception of performance.  And good as the SARD was, it was never going to displace Preen as the market leader, and with what was no doubt an expensive formula, the people at SARD at some stage pulled the pin and withdrew it from the market.

This left Preen all on its own effectively.  And what happens when a product has a monopoly, is that they tend to make it cheaper to allow the company to make more profits, and hope people don’t notice it.

The first change was to the Preen trigger formula which had come onto the market in 1985.  It too was solvent-based, but with a more parafinnic type of solvent (like kero).  This meant it was even better on oil based stains than the aerosol, but not quite as good with inks and shoe polishes.

In the early 90s be solvent changed to isopropanol, whose only claim to fame is that it is almost entirely odourless.  It certainly was not as effective a solvent as the original solvent.

At some stage both the trigger and the aerosol became water-based which of the course made them a lot cheaper to make.  The reason they could get away with this is that this coincided with advances in enzyme technology that allowed them to be entirely enzyme-based products.  This has its pros and cons, which I won’t go into now.

Tomorrow I think I might revisit enzymes and go into them in more detail.  As they are now an integral part of both detergents and prewashes, it’s good to understand what they are and how they work.  Then after that, unless I get distracted by something else, I’ll tie it all together and discuss some mistakes that people make when washing clothes and a few other tips.