What else is in the bath water?

My youngest child was a squirmer.  And not because he was trying to take in everything around him but because he was a uncomfortable little boy.  It took us a long time (8 years, all in all) to find all of the contributors to his discomfort but we found them, one by one…

The first suspect was clothing labels.  So off they came (with little effect, I might add).

Our second investigation had to do with the laundry detergent so we did some experiments.   When a few weeks of handwashing in plain water seemed to settle him down, I decided to look for a laundry detergent he could tolerate.  It was not an easy search.  I had been using Ivory Snow, the recommended laundry option (a soap, rather than a detergent) for babies, then regarded as the cleanest, gentlest option available.  If he couldn’t handle the residues of that, what was I left with?

This was almost twenty years ago.  We didn’t have the choices then that we do now.  The greener brands we did find were, in many case, beyond our budget (not to mention the fact that they were, still, detergents).  In the end, I resorted to an old fashioned mixture of washing soda and borax, with vinegar and baking soda rinses at the end.  And I learned a lot about soap, detergent and cleaning as I figured out the recipe.

Soap is made by combing fats with chemical bases like lye.  In water, one end of the soap molecule attaches to dirt and grease, sealing it in a little pocket while the other end bonds to the water.  The dirt or grease is pulled off the body, clothes or whatever else is being washed.

Detergents are surfactants, chemicals which lower the surface tension of water, allowing the water to dissolve molecules it usually wouldn’t dissolve, like oil.  And because the water can hold more, you see (as in, with your eyes) less clouding or residue deposit. Detergents were developed to replace soap during WWI and WWII, when animal and vegetable fats were in short supply.

So basically, the soap molecules surround the dirt and pull it away while detergents dissolve it.  So what?

  1. Detergents are distilled from petrochemicals while soaps are based on more human-friendly (ie. less carcinogenic, less-refined) oils and fats closer to (or in) their natural state.
  2. Detergents allow the water to hold a whole lot more dirt and grease than soap does, meaning that they can leach far more precious natural oils from your skin and hair in the process.
  3. Soap and detergent both leave residues behind on anything they contact, whether we can see that residue (ring around the tub) or not (which is why you should always rinse your dishes).  Some of the residue is dirt and some is the cleaner.
  4. Soap and detergent can both contain perfumes, colourants and other ‘cosmetic’ treatments.
  5. Soap is always labelled as soap.  Detergents are sometimes named detergent (dish detergent, laundry detergent) but can also be named something else, like shampoo, body wash or makeup remover.  (Which means that this conversation is about much more than laundry.)
  6. Manufacturers (still!) do not have to put their ingredients on the product label for sale as a household product.  We have no idea what is in there.
  7. Notice I haven’t even mentioned the phosphate/phosphate free issue.  (Is mass-algae death worse or better than the effects of massive alge blooms?  I don’t have enough info to decide so I stay out of the debate once I’ve made sure both sides have been included.)
  8. And then there are fabric softener and air freshener, which are whole new conversations… (There is much more to it than residues with these two products.)

It is true that laundry detergent is nothing like the crude oil from which it is distilled, but I have to wonder how it fits in with the latest version of my own personal quest for more natural living and my guiding rule: use things as close to their natural state as possible.  I think, perhaps, it is the antithesis of what I am trying to do so I will keep looking for something better than borax and washing soda (it did make things rather dingy) but more natural (more soapy?) than the phosphate free washing powder we currently use (no, I won’t mention the brand).

I have a recipe that someone gave me that is based on castile soap (go! go! Dr. Bronners!) and maybe, just maybe, it’s time to get over my fear about the accuracy of the preamble: safe for HE washing machines…

I mean, even if one little experiment could blow up such a sophisticated piece of machinery, what’s a washing machine in the grand scheme of things?  Somehow, I think my itchy little man was just one of the many canary moments that have appeared so poignantly in my life and I’ve been dragging my feet with a partial fix for far, far too long.

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