We’ve all had to don the rubber gloves at some point, whether it’s to clean the dishes, scrub the shower or even wash the car. We’re all familiar with soap and detergent. These two cleaning agents are great for domestic and commercial cleaning, but did you know that they aren’t interchangeable? To know which is the best for any given situation, it’s important to know the difference between them and how they work.
What is soap?
Soap has been around for thousands of years – as early as 2800 BC – and not much has changed in the way it’s made. Traditionally, soaps are made from mixing a natural fat or oil (like animal fat or plant oil) with a base, usually an alkali (like sodium or potassium). Soap has been used for cleaning and washing skin, clothes and surfaces for centuries.
What is detergent?
Unlike soaps, detergents are relatively new. Detergent came into existence during World War I when there was a shortage of traditional soap ingredients and manufacturers had to resort to man-made, synthetic substances. Although there are different kinds of detergents, they all contain surfactants. Surfactants reduce the surface tension in water so it can be used to more easily wipe away dirt and grime. Since their invention, detergents have been regularly used in residential and office cleaning.
How do soap and detergent work?
Soap and detergent work in a similar manner to each other, although the synthetic nature of detergent means it may be a better choice in certain situations. To understand how, it’s time for a science lesson.
You may have noticed how oil and water do not combine. This is because oil is hydrophobic (this literally means fear of water) because of its molecular composition. Different hydrophobic molecules stick together so when you mix soap or detergent, which contain oil or similar hydrophobic components, with the grease on your counter top, the grease and grime sticks to the soap or detergent. The non-hydrophobic, or hydrophilic (water loving), elements of detergent and soap then surround the hydrophobic molecules. This means the grime is trapped by the hydrophilic molecules in microscopic enclosures that can be washed away easily. All of this happens by simply wetting a cloth with a mix of water and soap or detergent. Read Why Office Cleaning is Important
Advantages and disadvantages
Advantages of soap
- As soaps are made of natural ingredients, they are biodegradable and more environmentally friendly than detergents.
- You can make your own soaps at home with easily obtainable ingredients and with your favourite scents.
- Soap can be less harsh on your skin.
Disadvantages of soap
- The minerals in hard water can interact with soap to create soap scum which can leave residue on your hands or surfaces, as well as turning clothes grey or even ruining the fabric.
- Soap needs warm water to work by heating up and dissolving the fat it is made from.
- Soap requires more water for rinsing and more energy to heat the water to effectively work.
Advantages of detergent
- Detergents are less affected by the mineral content in water.
- Detergents can be formulated to work with any water temperature.
- Because detergents are synthetic, they can be altered more easily to be more effective for certain jobs, for instance, for commercial cleaning of carpets.
Advantages of detergent
- Unfortunately, many detergents are not biodegradable.
- Compounds in detergents can negatively affect aquatic life, even killing fish.
- Depending on the chemicals used to create the detergent, it can makecleaning water acidic which can affect soil and water it comes into contact with.
Environmental impacts of soap and detergent
Whether you are using soap or detergent for office cleaning or just spring cleaning your house, you need to consider the environmental impact of your choice. Unfortunately, both detergents and soaps are not completely environmentally friendly.
Commercial soap is often made using valuable natural resources, such as palm oil, which has led to mass deforestation to farm it.Soap also needs more water, and energy to heat this water,than detergents.
If detergents reach freshwater or saltwater without completely biodegrading, they can kill fish in a number of ways, including damaging fish’s gills, making fish more susceptible to bacteria and parasites, and leading to algal blooms that suck the oxygen out of the water so fish ‘drown’.
The large production process required for detergent (typically there are ten steps involved in creating detergent) also has a substantial carbon footprint. This does not include the additional carbon footprint generated from creating packaging and transporting the detergent to be sold in stores.
While it is impossible to live a clean and healthy life without using soap or detergent, through careful consideration of what you need your cleaning products to do and research into the multitude of options out there, you can find a balance between looking after yourself and minimising the environmental impacts of your choice.