The Science of Detergents

For an episode in the latest season of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell travelled to Cincinnati to meet the product development teams at Proctor and Gamble behind their laundry and dish detergents. Gladwell was floored by the amount of science and research put into every element of detergents. It turns out there is a lot of effort that goes into developing the perfect soap, and there is good reason for it too. Good detergents allow for cold water washing, which drastically reduces the energy and carbon emissions associated with running a dishwasher or washing machine. Good detergents make things more efficient, which we need if we want to address the climate crisis. P&G has rows of washing machines and dishwashers all testing different formulas of detergents, to examine performance, wear and tear on the machines and clothes/dishes, and how their products perform relative to competitors.
I was reminded of Galdwell’s podcast when I looked back at a line from Mary Roach’s book Gulp. She writes, “Higher-end detergents contain at least three digestive enzymes: amylase to break down starchy stains, protease for proteins, and lipase for greasy stains (not just edible fats but body oils like sebum). Laundry detergent is essentially a digestive tract in a box. Ditto dishwashing detergent: protease and lipase eat the food your dinner guests didn’t.”
The two authors both highlight the surprising amount of effort in terms of science and research that goes into something most of us overlook. Detergents contain digestive enzymes that we may have in our bodies to make them more effective. Real scientific application and study has gone into giving us something so mundane, but it can still have a real impact on how our world moves forward while addressing climate change. Its comical to think of detergents as a digestive tract in a box, but it really is an important and scientifically interesting field of study.

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