It wasn’t long ago that shopping for a product to do the household laundry was fairly simple. Any packet of soap powder from most any brand would do. The product would include just a few simple chemicals, perhaps with the addition of a perfume or stain remover such as borax.
Now? Detergents are extraordinarily complex mixtures, matched precisely by expert manufacturers to suit local conditions and usage. One thing many household and industrial laundry detergents have in common is borates, which have been proven to
- Improve cleaning action
- Prevent dirt from redepositing on clothes
- Control pH
- Safely and effectively bleach stains
Higher Expectations for Better Laundry Care
Numerous factors affect what detergent manufacturers put into their products. Around the world, wash temperatures vary by scores of degrees, and the amount of washing powder put into the machine differs. Maybe a stain remover is added separately. The domestic machine might be loaded at the top or from the front. The amount of water used varies.
For decades, borates have been a common ingredient in detergent formulations because of their cleaning and anti-bacterial properties. Just consider what we expect a detergent to do: get dirt out of and off clothes, bleach stains but leave colors alone, maintain fabric softness, and deal with germs.
Scientifically, a detergent performs a precise function, acting at the interface between what needs to be cleaned and the soils that need to be removed, separating them, and allowing the dirt to be rinsed away. In scientific language, this is a surface-active agent or surfactant.
Detergents provide many other benefits, including:
- Altering the surface tension of water (increasing wetting)
- Dissolving, loosening, or bleaching stains so they can't be seen
- Softening wash water so other cleaning actions work better
- Sanitizing the wash
- Protecting what is being washed from damage
Quite a tall order for a simple white powder.
As scientists' insights into the chemistry of the wash have increased, so has the efficacy of the household detergent. Although most household detergent users don’t know why, detergents continue to work better and better, and consumers have come to expect improvements.
How Borates in Detergents Make Washing Better
Most shoppers don’t know the value, or even existence of borates in their washing products, but they add many benefits.
Before 1907, clothes were laundered in soap with 20 Mule Team Borax often added separately as a powerful but gentle bleach and fabric conditioner. Then Persil® was launched as the first commercially available self-activated laundry detergent. The brand derives its name from perborate-silicate. Persil put a better soap and a bleach into the same package.
Not only did the Persil formulation have the advantage of convenience (putting soap and a bleach in the same package), but chemists began to discover that the borate (sodium perborate, produced by reacting borax with sodium hydroxide, hydrogen peroxide, and other borates) made the detergent better in many ways.
Originally added as an in-wash bleach for common and difficult stains in whites and colored fabrics, sodium perborate is technically a vehicle for the release of available oxygen (AvOx), which renders many stains colorless. Compared to other AvOx-producing ingredients, perborate is highly stable and retains its potency over a long period, which is important for supermarket and utility-room shelf life.
Additionally, it helps lift some kinds of stains off fabrics by giving the stains the same electrical charge as the fabric (like repels like so the stain lifts off).
Borates work as detergent builders as well. They improve the performance of the basic detergent chemical, principally by softening hard water and helping the surfactant to work better. In hard water (prone to forming lime scum), detergents work less well because of calcium carbonate precipitation, which borates repress. In a process called saponification, oily dirt turns into a soapy cleaning substance when borates are present—a plus to the overall laundering process.
Borates in the wash can stabilize other ingredients such as enzymes, stopping them from degrading and thus significantly lengthening storage shelf life in the supermarket and at home with little loss of cleaning efficiency. Borates help to ensure that the alkalinity of the wash water is best for the wash under virtually all circumstances. And they help other components stay dissolved in concentrated liquid formulations, as well as aiding fabric care and effective sanitization.
Borates in Detergents Are Universal
Borates have been in the wash since the 19th century, when borax even inspired music-hall songs about the joys of wash day and the banishment of dirt. As perborates, they are almost universal in laundry detergents. And as consumers have embraced lower water levels and lower wash temperatures, borates can be as effective as they were in the day of the hot wash by the addition of so-called activators. New discoveries and continual improvements will likely improve performance even more.