The use of chemicals to help in the cleaning of clothes has existed from ancient times when the Italians used a mixture of sulphur and water with charcoal to clean clothes. The Egyptians used ashes and silicates to soften water. Soaps were the first detergents to be used in washing clothes and the detergent usage of certain synthetic surfactants was found in Germany in the First World War when there was a shortage of soap.
As things moved into the 1930’s then fatty alcohols were commercially produced and developed to the sulfate esters produced by the companies like the US giants of Proctor and Gamble. These lasted until after the Second World War when tetra propylene was developed in aviation fuel and then used in detergents.
Enzymes had been explored by Rohm in the early 1900’s but the use was limited until the end of the century when thermally robust bacterial enzymes became available.
Soap has almost been replaced in developed countries as a cleaning agent as it is most ineffective compared to the quantity used. Hard water can reduce its effectiveness almost to zero and by the 1950’s soap had become almost totally replaced by alkyl benzene sultanates, unfortunately these were found to be very poor in their ability to be biodegradable and these have been replaced by linear alkyl benzene sultanates (LAB). These LAB’s have taken over as the main commercial detergents although refinements, which are impervious to hard water, are now available.
The present detergent is made up of a water softener of which sodium triphosphate is the most common. Bleaches are sometimes added which target the vegetable items such as chlorophyll and tannins and others, they are made up of oxidisers such as sodium perorate and others.
Enzymes are often included and can make up to 2% of the product and these are there to destroy stubborn stains made up of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Each type of stain requires a different enzyme to tackle a different cause so the mixture can be quite complicated.
Environmentally the major problem has been with sodium triphosphate as this can be 50% of the total and this has caused sever damage to lakes and rivers, the problem has been so severe that phosphate replacement has become a major concern. The EU in 2004 made a ruling that all detergents must be biodegradable and intends to ban phosphates in detergents from 2013.