Soap vs Detergent

Everywhere you turn there seems to be confusion about using soap versus detergent to launder fine linens, woolens, silks and delicates. Those who swear soap will ruin your fine washables are met with arguments from those who equally swear detergents will damage fine washables. Who is right? Well the answer is not cut and dry, and much depends on what one is laundering, how it is being laundered, under what conditions and finally personal preference. As Old World hand laundry, we at Allo Laverie believe highly in the value of using pure soap for laundering fine linens and washables. However, as a professional laundry we also know and understand soap does have limitations and will proceed accordingly. The following is a brief essay on the merits of both soaps and detergents for laundry purposes.

Before commencing a few comments; we shall consider "soap" to be pure soap made from a high fat base without additives such as bleach, brighteners, and such. We will consider "detergents" any laundering product that is not a true pure soap, this includes Orvus, Woolite and most other laundry products designed for fine washables.

What Is The Difference Between Soap and Detergent?

When it comes to laundry/cleaning purposes the term soap and detergent are often used interchangeably, and with good reason, as chemically they are similar. Both contain surfactants (substances that reduce surface tension of water), with the difference being soap is made from animal or vegetable fats and oils combined with a strong alkali, whereas synthetic detergents are made from petrol-chemicals. It is the "all natural" aspect of soap that appeals to many, however soap does have it's dark side.

Those Dirty Rings - Soap Scum.

Soap was dethroned as the queen of laundry day because of the residue that forms when soap is used in hard water (water with high calcium or magnesium ions), which causes an insoluble salt/scum to form. This scum is deposited over everything the wash water comes in contact with; from laundry to the insides of the wash tub, and can be hard to remove. Soap is also inactivated in the presence of acids, which also will combine with soap to form another type of scum. This is a problem when it comes to laundry as most laundry does contain some acids absorbed from decomposing perspiration or from food stains. So are soaps bad for laundry? Not necessarily.

The Era of Modern Laundry Detergents.

There are several types of detergents: anionic, nonionic, cationic and amphoteric. Anionic detergents behave like soap chemically. They are powerful cleansers, inexpensive, high foaming, and are not affected by hard water like soap. However like soap anionic detergents can be deactivated by the presence of acids, so are usually mixed alkalis such as Borax or washing soda (sodium carbonate) and perhaps cationic or nonionic detergents (which are not affected by acids) as well. Alkalis act as "builders" in detergents by helping to raising the pH level, softening the water and reacting with any acids.

Nonionic detergents are neutral detergents commonly used in dish washing liquids. They do not react with hard water ions and also, nonionic detergents foam less than ionic detergents. Amphoteric detergents are quite mild and used mainly in personal care products like shampoos and body washes. Cationic surfactants are used in fabric softeners and fabric softening detergents such as wool washes.

Orvus Paste versus Soap, Which is Better For Fine Laundry?

Orvus Paste is simply a pure anionic detergent with a neutral pH, that is it. There is nothing magical about it, nor special and it's cult status has evolved around a myth that all textile conservators and hand laundries prefer it hands down to anything else for laundering fine,delicate or vintage washables. This simply is not true. Professional laundries and textile conservators have access to a variety of chemicals and detergents to suit their uses. Sometimes they will use soap, sometimes Orvus Paste, other times any of the many products sold for cleaning particular items.Note also many better commercial laundries and most textile conservation labs have access to pure soft water on tap.

First it must be stated that those engaged in textile conservation have a very different set of criteria than someone laundering a wool sweater or quilt at home. A textile conservator is concerned with preserving and stabilizing textiles and will always choose the least damaging method cleaning it, this may mean not laundering it at all. Orvus Paste is used by some in the field simply because they know what is in it, and what is not. As a pure detergent Orvus Paste does not contain, bleaches, enzymes, sulfates, fillers, brighteners and other chemicals that might affect textiles.

As noted previously anionic detergents are inexpensive (which is why those large jugs of Orvus Paste cost so little), high foaming, and a powerful cleaner, which does mostly the same job, as soap in laundry use. Again just, like soap anionic detergents are inactivated by too hard water. This means that if you have hard water Orvus will not clean as well as it should. Being pure sodium lauryl sulfate, Orvus Paste has other problems too. First if one adds an acid to the water containing Orvus, (such as adding vinegar to the wash or rinse water), it can force the water's pH down to the point where Orvus chemically bonds to wool or silk fibers. You can rinse and rinse with any type of water until pigs fly, but you will not get it out of the fabric again. Next from a health point of view, pure sodium lauryl sulfate is something to be used with caution. It is a pretty strong irritant to skin, and can cause allergic reactions such as dermatitis and eczema. SLS can also sting badly, especially if your skin is damaged or if it gets into your eyes. SLS can also strip the oils out of wool and silk leaving them with a dry rough hand.

Most natural fibers benefit from gentle cleansing and a small amount of conditioner. Wool, silks and to an extent linens have a much better hand when laundered or rinsed with a cationic surfactant or laundered in soap. Cationic surfactants have a conditioning effect on protein fibers such as wool and silk, helping to smooth fibers which is why they are used in fabric softeners and hair conditioners. The problem is when using Orvus or any detergent containing SLS, cationic surfactants will bond with any residue of SLS to create a waxy, sticky layer that will need a strong laundering in solvents to remove.

Pure Soap - The Gentle Alternative

Soap does have drawbacks, but if used correctly under the proper conditions we feel it is best for 80 percent of laundry involving fine linens and washables. The secret lies in how it is used.

Like Orvus Paste, pure soap does not contain, bleaches, brighteners or any other additives. You can add these on your own if needed/advised, but the beauty is you are in control of the laundering process. Pure soap is gentle to your hands and fine washables, it will not strip wool fibers of precious oils, and in fact, the opposite is true. The fats and oils used in making soap help keep wool, silks, linens and other fibers lubricated; rather like a moisturizer for your textiles. You do not need to use separate fabric softeners, lanolin or detergents containing cationic surfactants, because soap cleans and actually softens in one step. What about the acids in laundry that deactivate soap? When laundering body/bed linens, or anything that has been in contact with your skin that is made of cotton or linen, soak the items first in cool water with a bit of Borax or washing soda. These alkaline substances along with the water will flush away much of the acids, leaving your laundry ready for washing with soap. If you have hard water, add a packaged water softener such as White King or Calgon to the wash water along with your soap. Finally always remember to rinse, rinse, and rinse until the water is clear. Adding a bit of white vinegar to the final rinse water will aid in removing any remaining soap residue.

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