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A Little Detergent Primer

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The historical development of washing laundrys

Washing laundry is a tradition!

Ever since humanity first put on clothing as a second skin, there has been an - conscious or unconscious - interest in removing soiling and stains for hygienic reasons. And that is what washing does.

As such, washing laundry is an ancient art, the development of which can be traced over millenia. The purpose always remained unchanged. And although the methods applied to achieve the desired objective have changed over the centuries, all these methods have one thing in common to this day and will continue to do so in future: the use of water.

And there is another aspect that has accompanied washing in the sense of wet-treating laundry since time immemorial: mechanical treatment. What today is accomplished by the spinning drum inside a washing machine was formerly done by rubbing the laundry on a “washboard”, slapping clothes on stones, thrashing them with wood planks or stomping on them with the feet. This is also the reason why the ancient Egyptian glyph of two legs in water stands for laundry washers.

One thing that has been recognized from very early on is that different forms of water manipulation could improve its washing performance. People for example noticed that rain water was much better for washing clothes than the water from most springs, that hot water works better than cold water and that certain additives can improve the cleaning power of the water. The oldest additives of this type were soap and soda.

The oldest record concerning the use of soap in washing wool is found on a Sumerian tablet dating from 2500 B.C.

Even the ancient Egyptians were familiar with something resembling soap. They availed themselves of trona, an alkaline salt that is quite similar to soda, which they mixed with fat and heated.

The Romans learned about soap from the Gauls and Germanic tribes, although these initially did not use it as a detergent, but rather as a cosmetic. Not until the second half of the 2nd century would soap be used by the Romans to wash their laundry.

In the 7th century, the art of soap making was brought to Spain by Arabic immigrants versed in producing baking soda or potash lye using soda or potash and slaked lime.

Much later, in the 17th century, Marseilles became the most important centre of soap making. The art of boiling soap also spread to Holland and England. In Germany, Hamburg, Stettin, Magdeburg and Berlin became centres of soap manufacture. From the Middle Ages into modern times, soap production was undertaken by professional soap boilers organised in a guild, many of whom were also engaged in the craft of candle making. In the 19th century, a process for making soda from salt was discovered and soap making grew into an industry.

Because alkalis in general, as we know today, enhance the cleaning power of water, people used it even in pre-Christian times, preparing their suds with wood ash. Depending on the geographic location, beech wood or sea plant ash or watery extracts of the same would be added. Another agent that works this way is the rancid urine the fullones, the washers and scourers of ancient Rome, used for their laundry. “Pecunia non olet — money does not stink”, as Emperor Vespasian reportedly said when he started taxing this trade. As late as the 18th century, English wool manufacturers were still using both urine and even sheep or pig manure for washing.

But there were also other additives such as borax, alum, root infusions of the soap plant Saponaria vulgaris or horse chestnut extracts that were also used to improve washing efficiency.

Soap was originally used in the form of cakes or balls with which the laundry would be scoured. Only in the wake of industrial manufacturing did soap also become available in powdered form. The first washing powders were thus commercially introduced around 188O and contained soap powder as their main ingredient, with soda and sodium silicate being added as alkaline substances. Today, powder is the leading form of detergent available, although soap is no longer the main ingredient. In recent years, other granulates and extrudates have been added, with all of them maintaining the basic form of fine particles.

The year 1907 was a high point in the “history of soap”. Two well-known chemists contributed what then were sensational innovations:

In 1907, one milestone in the history of detergents was laid by the research chemist Dr. Otto Röhm (founder of the chemical factory Röhm & Haas, Plexiglas®). He was the first to examine the chemical composition of laundry stains with scientific means.
His research objective: to use enzyme chemistry to improve textile hygiene. The result: the very first detergent containing enzymes. Dr. Otto Röhm baptized it “Burnus” in a symbolic derivation from the radiantly white, traditional garments worn in Arabic countries. In 1938, his innovation gave rise to our name: Burnus GmbH.

Also in the same year of 1907, Fritz Henkel invented “Persil”, a detergent we would call a general-purpose detergent today. It was not only able to wash, but could also bleach clothes, thus replacing the traditional, work-intensive and inconvenient lawn bleaching, because it contained perborate and silicate in addition to soap and soda.
In earlier times, the local river, village spring, or pond were favoured places for doing the laundry. The overcrowded urban living conditions during the Middle Ages drove the washerwomen to the courtyard for their laundry, and this is also where the wash house later developed. The tenements of the industrial cities of later times comprised communal laundry rooms. Today, thanks to the development of the electrically operated and heated washing machine, the laundry can be done at home, in the kitchen or the bathroom.

This has turned doing the laundry into a process which hardly requires any effort in terms of physical labour or time, especially in comparison to former times. Today, all one needs to do is to simply pack the sorted laundry into the washing machine, add detergent and choose the right cycle: the washing machine automatically washes, rinses and spins the laundry, all by itself. After the spinning cycle, the laundry is simply removed and hung on the line or dried in a dryer. The laundry day of former times, which occurred at far greater intervals and struck terror in the hearts of all the family members, has today been replaced by the more frequent washing of smaller loads.

(Source: Excerpt from: “Waschmittel und Pflege”, Editors: Christian Grugel, Rolf Puchta, Peter Schöberl, IKW, Frankfurt)

The washing process

The cleaning process of washing depends on the interaction of numerous physical and chemical influences. The water transports the detergent, the heat, and the stains. The detergent, the machine, the length of the cycle and the temperature all affect the washing results.

Find below some interesting information about water, stains, textiles and washing machines:


Calcium and magnesium ions, but also traces of iron, copper, and manganese in the water render it hard and reduce its effectiveness for washing. Their reactions with detergent components and conversion at higher temperatures create undesirable lime deposits on textiles and in the machine. Using the right amount of detergent or adding a separate water softener helps curtail their negative influence.

Water hardness varies from region to region. In Europe, three general levels of water hardness are defined: soft, medium and (very) hard water (Consumers can obtain information on the hardness of the water in their local area from their respective town hall or water supplier).

Soiling and stains

Soiling and stains are generally composed of a mixture of many different substances. They can either be evenly distributed on fabrics or appear as a spot.

The different types of stains can be roughly assigned to three groups:

Water soluble stains:

  • inorganic salts
  • sugar
  • urea
  • sweat

Water-insoluble stains:

  • pigments (metal oxide, dust, soil, soot)
  • fat (oil from the skin, cooking oil, lard, mineral oils, waxes)
  • protein (blood, egg, milk)
  • carbohydrates (starches)
    bleachable stains (fruit, vegetables, wine, coffee, tea)

Water-insoluble but removable stains are generally broken down by surfactants. If the stains are bleachable, bleaching agents are used, whereas enzymes (proteases) are more effective for protein stains.

Stains that are neither water-soluble nor removable by washing:

  • tar
  • dyes
  • paint

These stains can only be removed by special treatments.


A general differentiation is made between natural fibres and synthetic fibres, both of which frequently also occur as fibre mixtures. The composition and structure of its fibre determines the physiological characteristics of the garment and how it is to be washed.

  • Natural fibres consist of cellulose, such as in cotton or linen, and protein molecules, such as in wool, cashmere or silk.
  • Rayon and acetate consist of physiochemically modified cellulose fibres (reclaim fibres) and are hence a mixture of natural and synthetic fibres.
  • Polyester, polyacrylic, and spandex, for example, are synthetic fibres.

The internationally uniform care labelling provides information on how to care for different fabrics properly.

Types of detergent

One look at a supermarket's detergent shelves reveals a large number of brands, different detergent types and various product innovations: the packages contain powder, pearls, pastes, gels, liquids and more recently individual tablets. Every form fulfils a certain task and features its very own advantages. Here is an overview of the most important product types:

General-purpose detergents
General-purpose detergents can be used on almost all types of fabrics and stains at any temperatures and in any washing cycle.
In powder form they can be used at temperatures ranging from 30° to 95° C. The powder contains surfactants, builders, bleaching agents and optical brighteners, generally in combination with a bleach activator. Enzymes such as amylases (= enzymes that break down starch), cellulases (= enzymes that break down cellulose), lipases (=enzymes that break down fats), and proteases(= enzymes that break down proteins) are also included.
Liquid general-purpose detergents contain no bleaching agents and, due to their high surfactant concentration, remove stains containing fats and oils at relatively low temperatures (30° to 60° C). This special characteristic has helped them occupy such an important place among all the different detergents.
Detergents for coloured textiles
Detergents for coloured textiles are available in powder or liquid form and suitable for all coloured textiles. They are gentle on the dyes, despite their cleansing power and contain no bleaching agents or optical brighteners. Specific agents prevent that any leached colour stains the other garments.
Mild-action detergents
Delicate fabrics or fabrics with sensitive colours can be gently washed with a mild-action detergent. These contain no bleaching agents or optical brighteners and are suitable for cycles at lower temperatures.
Detergents for colours and delicates are rapidly gaining in importance, partly because the number of coloured textiles in households today is now much higher than it used to be. They have increasingly become available in the form of a compact detergent.
Modular detergents
With an eye on protecting the environment, so-called “modular” detergents avoid the use of certain agents if these are not needed for a certain type of laundry. As a rule, a separate water softener is added to a basic detergent depending on water hardness, and bleaching agents (spot remover) are only added for strongly soiled clothes and bleachable stains.
Detergents with specific uses
Detergents for wool, curtains or for the use of travellers can be numbered amongst these specific-use detergents, which are formulated for application to particular fabrics or particular problems.
Fabric softeners
Fabric softener smoothes the fibres that have become disordered during the wash and restores their pliancy. A lack of air movement while line-drying in closed rooms can make the laundry feel stiff and rough. Fabric softener also increases a fabric's resistance to mechanical stresses and reduces fibre abrasion by up to 20 percent. It also prevents the build-up of static electricity. Fabric softener furthermore saves time and electricity: the drying time of the laundry is shortened and the ironing is easier and faster.
Water softeners
Water softeners bond with the minerals in the water, creating “soft” water in the washing machine - one of the requirements for a good cleaning performance and also a protection against lime deposits in the machine and on the laundry.
Today's detergents generally contain water softeners, but they are also available separately as special products to economize on detergent while maintaining the same cleansing performance in harder water, or in order to avoid undesirable detergent ingredients: one uses only the amount of detergent that would be required for soft water and adds the separate water softener according to the water hardness. Separately available water softeners also protect the washing machine from lime deposits.

Detergent ingredients

Surfactant, also called surface-active agents, form the basis of every detergent formula. They reduce the water's surface tension, which means that it penetrates the fibres better, which particularly increases its power to remove oily and greasy stains. They also keep the stains suspended in the suds and stop them from settling on the fabrics again.
Anionic surfactants are the most widely used, followed by non-ionic surfactants (which are less sensitive to water hardness). Certain cationic surfactants can be used in combination with anionic surfactants to improve cleaning performance.
The effectiveness of a surfactant system depends on its composition and combination with other ingredients (water softener and wash alkalis), as the individual substances can augment each other in combination, increasing their effectiveness.
Water softeners
Water softeners bond with the minerals in the water and protect the machine and laundry from lime deposits. Today, zeolite and phylocilicates are most often used. They catch the “hardeners” in the water like a sieve. This process is supported by other ingredients (co-builders). But citrate and soap also have a water-softening effect. Phosphates are no longer used in household detergents in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland because of their potential eutrophication effect (= they fertilize the water).
Wash alkalis
Carbonates and silicates adjust the pH-value of the suds, that is, they determine how alkaline it is. They cause the fibres to swell slightly, which makes the stains easier to remove. Silicate also protects the washing machine from corrosion and improves the structure of powdered detergents.
Antiredeposition Agents
Polymers, such as carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), prevent loosened stains or lime deposits that are held in suspension from being deposited again on cleaned fabrics or the washing machine.
Common bleaching agents are sodium perborate and sodium percarbonate. They remove bleachable, coloured stains such as fruit, vegetable and coffee stains by oxidation, i.e. through the application of oxygen. They brighten whites, refresh colours, remove odours, and improve hygiene.
Bleach activators
Since bleaches are less effective at lower temperatures, their effectiveness is enhanced with activators, such as TAED, for example.
Bleach stabilisers
Traces of heavy metals in laundry stains can cause the uncontrollable release of oxygen from bleaches. This reduces the bleach's effectiveness and can damage the fabrics. Bleach stabilisers like phosphonate bind the heavy metals, thus inhibiting their destructive effect.
Enzymes are highly effective protein molecules that can fulfil specific tasks even in low concentrations and at low temperatures:
  • Amylases break down starches and can therefore remove chocolate, potatoe, pasta, rice or oatmeal stains.
  • Cellulases break down damaged cotton fibres (fuzz or pills) and smooth them. This also contributes to the removal of ground-in stains and preserves the brightness of coloured fabrics.
  • Lipases break down natural fats, such as those found in sauces, cosmetics, body fat, and tallow. They boost the effectiveness of surfactants and can partly replace them.
  • Proteases break down proteins and remove protein-based stains, such as blood, egg, milk, cocoa, gravies and grass.
Enzymes manufactured by gene technology are also used in detergents. They, like the classically extracted enzymes, are quickly and easily degraded and safe to use, but are even more effective, and can be manufactured more economically and ecologically.
Optical brighteners
These fluorescent substances are particularly found in general-purpose detergents and turn the invisible ultraviolet parts of the light spectrum into visible light. This makes the fabrics appear lighter and brighter, and prevents yellowing.
Foam regulators
Foam regulators (such as silicone) inhibit excessive suds production in the washing machine.
Dye transfer inhibitor
Mild-action detergents and detergents for colours contain polyvinyl pyrrolidon (PVP) or substances of a similar chemical structure. They reduce the dye transfer to other items of clothing and thus reduce the chances of discoloured laundry.
Suspending agents
Suspending agents like sulphate are added to conventional powder detergents to increase their solubility and make them free-flowing.
Alcohols in liquid detergents serve as solvents for active ingredients. They boost the cleaning performance and in higher concentrations also act as a preservative.
They protect liquid products from microbial infestation. Concentrated products are self-preserving as a rule and do not require extra preservatives.
Perfumes cover the smell of the detergent itself and that of the dirty washing solution and give the laundry a pleasant fragrance. For consumers who are sensitive to fragrances — which are contained in general-purpose detergents as a rule — unscented detergents are also available.

(Source: Excerpt from "Richtig waschen", IKW, Frankfurt)

How to save water, electricity, and detergent:

  • Only wash full loads.
  • Add only as much detergent as is required for the level of soiling of the laundry and the water hardness.
  • Follow the instructions of the detergent manufacturer.
  • Use the lowest recommended temperature.
  • Not using the pre-wash cycle saves detergent, water and energy.
  • If you pre-treat stains while they are fresh, they are easier to wash out.
  • Choose the appropriate detergent, i.e. bleach-free products such as burti, burti compact and burti liquid, for coloured and dark fabrics.
  • Take note of the care instructions, even as early as when purchasing fabrics.

Should you have any further questions, please contact our free consulting service. The telephone number is printed on every package.

(Source: Excerpt from "Richtig waschen", IKW, Frankfurt)