Laundry is as much a science as it is practical arts. As the most senior laundry professional sitting in the National Board of Philippine Institute of Chemical Engineers, I often remind fellow engineers of the huge application of chemical engineering principles in the science of cleaning — starting with the Sinner’s Circle, the principle that governs any good wash.

The Sinner’s Circle tells us the four factors affecting cleaning techniques, namely temperature, mechanical action, time, and chemical action. (In laundry, water is at the center of that circle.) These factors should be adjusted to effectively remove different types of dirt. 

Sinner’s Circle. Image courtesy of Elpress.com

Now I have written about water and temperature before, while you will certainly have heard of the terms “laminar” and “turbulent” flows which washers create as mechanical action. What many take for granted in the Sinner’s Circle is chemistry — the chemicals we use to wash our clothes.

In the 1980s, I formulated and commercialized my own detergent brand called WIN — something that you (or your parents) will still remember seeing in supermarkets. While the principles of detergents and washing chemicals have remained the same after nearly 40 years, many in the laundry industry fail to appreciate the role of chemicals in ensuring our clothes come out clean and undamaged. There are certainly more types of chemicals — ones that are very specific to the needs of the product — and understanding each is key to answering the question: Is it clean?

Laundry chemicals play a major role to remove soil and bring the fabric to its original color by dissolving the organic and inorganic materials foreign and unwanted to the fabric fibers. Utmost proper direction to use is observed for application and care, and I would argue that DIY, hybrid and commercial laundry businesses should even resort to titration to establish the best possible condition to dissolve and remove the soils from the fabric. 

In applying chemicals, one should think of a variety of factors: locations, machines, water condition, fabric fiber, soil, and temperature. Remember this: No laundry shops are the same as far as suitable, proper, and appropriated and titrated conditions are concerned. There are too many variables: machines, water, the kind of fabric your customer typically brings in, and many more. Each laundry has its own identity, thus a specialized and tailored suit chemical program as far as chemicals are concerned is established.

The roles of chemicals are as follows:

  • Wetting and rewetting
  • Emulsification
  • Saponification
  • Mineral sequestration /dissolution
  • Soil suspension
  • Optical brightening
  • Bleaching
  • Lubricates fiber for softness
  • Disinfection
  • Stiffening

There are three kinds of chemicals we use in the laundry business:

  1. Prespotting chemicals – stain removing compounds
  2. Chemicals for wash and dry laundry process
  3. Dry cleaning

I will be tackling the first two. To learn more about dry cleaning, read this article: Is Dry Cleaning Dying? The Rise of Wet Cleaning

Pre spotting chemicals

Be conscious that there is no one-size-fits-all pre-spotting chemical. Each stain is unique. Chemicals are available to combat these.

  • Rust removers 
  • Ink, oil, carbon, lipstick removers 
  • Dye uptake remover 
  • Bloodstain remover 

Read: Why hotels only use white linen

Laundry washing chemicals

These are the bulk of the chemicals you need. Due to COVID-19 and the need to ensure zero virus, I recommend using disinfectant on the last rinse.

  1. Alkali – powder or liquid, known in other names (Break, Booster, Builder). This compound is used in pre-wash or main wash to break down heavy soils and blood. 
  1. Detergent – not soap, powder or liquid, the mainwash player, completely synthetic , contains surfactants, anionics, nonionics, water conditioner, soil suspending material, optical brightener, enzyme, and alkaline 
  1. Bleach – can either be chlorine based for whites or oxygen based for all colors. Many types of chlorine such as slow release and fast release. Powder or liquid.
  1. Sour (acid) – powder or liquid. Used in the last rinse for neutralization in case of excess alkalinity. Dissolves minerals and iron too.
  1. Fabric softener (conditioners) – powder or liquid used in the last rinse for softening of fibers and fabric with or without fragrance.
  1. Fabric stiffener – last rinse application. Used for stiffening of caps, uniform, cloth napkins , table cloths, and uniform. Instant or boiling type.
  1. Flatwork lubricant – cleaning of rollers, ironers for smooth, and non crease ironing.
  1. Fabric cologne/spray – fragrance application to the finished items.
  1. Disinfectant – applied before and after wash for everybody’s protection from virus 

Titration

Now that you know the standard chemicals used in laundry, I end with a note on titration.

Titration is always recommended to establish the optimum needed results for a better laundry finish, proper wash alkalinity, chlorine determination, iron content determination, excess alkalinity determination. 

Titration ensures that your chemical usage is efficient, avoids your chemicals damaging your client’s fabric, and it helps you gain savings.

Your chemical supplier should tell you more about this (titration), and you in turn should request their advice. Otherwise, it is likely that your supplier is not as aware of the science of cleaning. At the end of the day, your customers suffer if your chemical suppliers underdeliver and overpromise.

For questions, email me at rhapolega@yahoo.com

Read next: Restaurants use at least 17 kinds of chemicals. Here is the list