General Articles


Soap’s reign is threatened by a new synthetic that makes water wetter

SIDNEY KATZ September 15 1947
General Articles


Soap’s reign is threatened by a new synthetic that makes water wetter

SIDNEY KATZ September 15 1947



NOT LONG AGO a soap salesman was sent on a cross-country tour to acquaint the retail trade with his company’s latest baby.

The product was a radically new kind of soap—a soap so different, in fact, that it was an entirely new synthetic substance. People in the trade had various names for it. Some called it “soaplesssoap” or “soapless detergent”; others, simply “synthetic soap” or “synthetic detergent.”

To dramatize his new synthetic soap the salesman carried three photographs in his brief case which never failed to impress the most sceptical buyer. ' Picture one showed two ducks swimming peacefully on the surface of a large tub of water. In picture two a white-coated lab assistant was depicted adding several cupfuls of the new granular soap. The final photograph, taken only a few minutes later, showed the ducks sinking to the bottom of the tub like scuttled tugboats!

The salesman’s explanation runs something like this:

“The new synthetic soap makes water wetter and thinner so that it can spread along any surface and penetrate into any opening. Under normal conditions, ducks are kept afloat by a thick air-filled layer of feathers waterproofed by oil. When the water is made wetter, however, it breaks through the oil, soaks the feathers, and sinks the duck. And in the same way this wetter water really gets right at your dishes — it floats away the grease and dirt.”

Soap’s Rival

After an undisputed reign of over 2,000 years, conventional soap has a serious rival. In the United States, 10 years ago, synthetic soaps were unknown. Today 150 million pounds are sold over the counter at a retail cost of $35 millions. While this amount represents only four per cent of the total soap market, experts point out

that the synthetic soap industry is in a state of rapid expansion.

The synthetic detergent feels, looks and smells like the familiar granulated washing soap. But the similarity ends then and there. The synthetic soap can lather and wash in any kind of water— cold, hot, soft, hard, sea water or even vinegar, for that matter. It can cut through oil and greases on dishes and clothes with amazing ease.

Its crowning achievement, however, is that it leaves no residue. Gone forever is the traditional “ring around the tub,” the soap film that dulls clothes and streaks glasses. Without wiping, synthetic detergent will drain off a glass, leave it clear and sparkling. For the same reason it is excellent for washing automobiles, windows and other shiny surfaces that are so often marred by a telltale soap deposit.

Everybody Uses It

But synthetic detergents do not appeal to housewives alone. Manufacturers of textiles, inks, glues, and embalming fluids as well as dairymen have discovered valuable uses for it.

Giant corporations like Standard Oil of California are almost ready to start turning out a hundred million pounds of the detergent yearly. The H. J. Heinz Company, Du Pont, Monsanto Chemical Co. and National Aniline Co. are only a few of the new entrants in a field which already includes the old-established firms of Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive-Peet and others.

In Canada the synthetic soap industry, less than a year old, promises to capture a good slice of the $26 millions we pay annually for soap. Despite the fact that a synthetic soap plant costs almost as much as an oil refinery, at least two companies are already turning out made-in-Canada synthetic detergents. Colgate has added a special section to its Toronto factories, while Procter & Gamble has spent over $5 millions expanding its plants near Hamilton.

Synthesized from vegetable oils petroleum, the new detergent’s action in water is entirely different from that of ordinary soap. Soap works by surrounding particles of dirt and suspending them in the water. Other parts immediately combine with mineral particles in water (like calcium, magnesium) forming an insoluble curd. The water becomes cloudy. This is undesirable because it wastes large quantities of soap and forms the stubborn curd that clings to containers and clothes, makes the ring in your tub or streaks on your glassware.

The synthetic detergent disregards the minerals in the water. It makes the water itself thinner and wetter, thus allowing it to get at dishes and literally float the dirt away. After washing the dirt floats to the top or sinks, leaving the water perfectly clear. In one laboratory test several drops of water were placed on an oily rag. Because of surface tension they rigidly maintained their shape. However, when a few grains of detergent were added, the drops spread out and were completely absorbed by the cloth. Such penetrating action is highly desirable in the performance of a wide variety of household tasks.

The Answer to Hard Water

In both hard water and in cold water the synthetic product lathers more easily and does a better washing job than soap. Thus it should be especially popular in Western Ontario and the Prairie Provinces—Canada’s principal hard-water areas. According to government standards, water containing more than 10 grains of mineral to every gallon is classified as “hard.” Consider, then, the difficulty of using ordinary soap in the following places:

Guelph, with a mineral count of 27; Galt, 22; Kitchener, 15; Stratford, 32; Walkerton, 90. Moving westward, Regina has 13.3; Moose Jaw 19.8; and Manitou Beach, Sask., has water hard enough to walk on—3,750!

During the war the new soapless detergent received its acid test when it was issued to servicemen for use anywhere in the world, under all kinds of water conditions, regardless of temperature or hardness. Navy doctors were particularly pleased with the product. Often wounded men would be pulled out of the sea covered with oil,

and there would be nothing but sea water available with which to wash them. Soapless detergents formed a nice lather and cut away the grease as if by magic.

Because it is relatively safe to use, the synthetic detergent has obvious advantages over other traditional methods of softening water. Housewives have long used washing soda to do the job. Used in the right proportion, soda is safe for fabrics and is fairly inexpensive. An overdose, however, turns fabrics yellow when ironed. Other softeners, like lye and caustic soda, are dangerous alkalies. If not used with caution they can damage materials and irritate the skin.

In the past few years soap executives have spent long hours in conferences trying to estimate how fast and to what extent the synthetic soap habit will catch on.

“We try to keep in mind,” one official told me, “that housewives have acquired their washing habits from their mothers and their grandmothers who used soap. It’s not going to be an easy habit to break.”

The makers of synthetic soap are very much aware that the soap shortage has been partially responsible for the popularity of their product. Nevertheless, they point out that even considering abnormal market conditions, certain facts and figures show that synthetic detergents are being widely accepted in place of soap.

In Philadelphia, for example, during 1946 when almost 500,000 families were asked, “Are you buying soap substitutes for household use?” 12% answered “Yes.” When Milwaukee housewives were canvassed for answers to the same question, the number of converts to the new soap was estimated at 25.5%. In Omaha, Neb., where the water is harder, 24.5% of the families queried were using synthetic detergents in 1945. They were evidently impressed with the results, for in 1946 the number of users had jumped to 63.7%.

Soap Versus Detergent

There’s been no Canadian survey taken yet, but the Canadian housewives I queried personally seemed about evenly divided. Many liked the detergent because it gave a shine to glassware, was better for washing hair

Soap’s reign is threatened by a new synthetic that makes water wetter

or left sweaters looking softer. Others complained because the slippery feeling of soap wasn’t there or because they thought soap flakes gave more suds.

All in all, there seems to be general agreement that synthetic soap is superior for washing dishes, glasses, windows, automobiles—anything with a smooth surface. As for clothes, consider the results of of the most comprehensive comparative tests ever undertaken:

The Montana Experimental Station washed a wide range of household items

shirts, sweaters, stockings, curtains, tablecloths, etc. They laundered everything under four different conditions—in hard water and in soft water, by hand and by machine. First they used soap; then they used a synthetic detergent.

First, the experimenters washed allwool and all-silk garments. They found both kinds of cleanser doing a good job and declared the contest a tie.

Next, they tested cotton, linen, rayons and mixtures of cotton and wool. Here soap won a victory. “Probably due to its alkalinity,” explained the scientists, “soap cleans fabrics made from plant sources better.”

When all-wool blankets were laundered, however, the experimenters reported, “The nonsoap product definitely made the blankets cleaner and more brilliantin color.” The explanation given is that a certain amount of soap curd persists in st icking to the blanket despite several rinsings.

Soap seemed to be superior in removing stains from babies’ shirts and socks. Both cleansers did an equally good job on silk hose.

To conclude the tests, colored print dresses, rayon dress goods and table linens were laundered. Soap did a faster job of cleaning here, but the articles faded less when the soapless detergent was used.

Which is cheaper to use, soap or synthetic? No simple ready-made answer is available. To housewives, manufacturers say, “Much will depend on the water in your area—the harder the water, the greater the likelihood that synthetic soap will be your logical and economical choice. Much, too, will depend on how much washing you do and what you wash.”

Price comparisons will tell you little or nothing. For 27 cents, Company A will sell you a 24-ounce package of soap or a 12-ounce box of synthetic detergent. For the same price you can buy Company B’s product—24 ounces of granulated soap or 8-hj ounces of synthetic.

Manufacturers say the new product is not really more expensive. As a matter of fact, they claim, it’s probably cheaper. There’s no wastage in hardwater areas, you use lesser quantities to get a tubful of washing solution, the water can be used longer before you have to change it and it d«»es a job ordinary soap cannot do.

How It’s Made

Housewives frequently ask: “Will

the new detergent harm my skin?”

'The answer given is “Certainly not more than soap and in many cases less.” Soaps are alkali and tend to be more irritating than the synthetic detergent, which is neutral. On the other hand, since there is hardly a substance in existence that someone is not allergic to, at least a few housewaves have already reported that some synthetic detergents react unfavorably on their skin.

A synthetic soap plant looks like an oil refinery. It is a maze of pipes, tanks, pumps, mixers, coolers and dryers— some kept at special temperatures, some in state of vacuum, others under

heavy pressure. Each of the huge tanks contain one of the raw materials that go into the new detergent. Raw materials used in different processes include glycerine, petroleum, coconut oil, and other animal and vegetable oils, but no company will name the precise ingredients it uses. These are mixed in exact proportions, cooled automatically, then mixed with new substances. The resulting material, a creamy - white thick substance, is sprayed at high temperature to the top of a chamber seven stories high, at about 500 degrees. The result: synthetic soap granules which drop to the bottom and are taken away on an air stream to sifting and separating screens; then to a perfume chamber, then into the paper cartons you see on the grocery shelves.

At first soap companies issued the synthetic soap only in the conventional granulated form. Now it is offered to the public in ever-growing variety: in liquid form as a shampoo and a dentifrice, and in paste form for industrial purposes. The new “soapless soaps” may eventually be available in cakes and bars, too.

From the first the new product has been eagerly seized upon by industry. The wool textile industry, for example, found that synthetic soap can wash out the sheep oils easily and leave the wool much brighter, due to the absence of soap film. Because it helped their product to flew easily and evenly, glue manufacturers added soapless detergent as an ingredient. It soon became an essential part of insecticide, too. “It makes a finer spray,” explained a gardener in the Niagara district, “and once the liquid lands on the plant it spreads to all parts of the leaves and flowers and penetrates.”

When undertakers began to order the new detergent soap officials were curious. They learned that when a small quantity of detergent was added to the embalming fluid, the undertakers had found that surface tension was broken down and the fluid flowed through even the smallest veins and capillaries to all parts of the body. It also goes into the manufacture of foam-type fire extinguishers, and of synthetic rubber.

Dairymen are probably the most enthusiastic users of the new detergent. Washing with soap was unsatisfactory because soap residue and milk com-

bined to form a hard tenacious white substance called “milk stone” on the surface of separators which required half an hour of energetic boiling and scouring to remove. To save time farmers got into the habit of cleaning their equipment at night only, instead of after the morning and the evening milking.

“Analysis of the evening milking showed an average of 80,000 bacilli,” explained a dairy inspector.

Because synthetic detergents can make a separator spotless in two minutes, farmers can now afford to clean their utensils after each milking. The bacilli count of the evening milking has thus been reduced from 80,000 to 8,000! .'

Good for Fido, Too

The soapless soap is also very much in evidence at animal shows. With no soap film clinging to the coat of an animal its natural color is brought out and enhanced.

One of the most peculiar boosts for synthetic soap came from a Chicago doctor, who reported that ulcer patients who drank solutions of the new soap had miraculously recovered! Soap manufacturers, however, are reluctant to comment on the curative powers of synthetic soap. “That’s one for the doctors,” they say.

The housewife who wants to try the new synthetic detergent is apt to be a little confused by the vast number of brands currently on the market. While there are only a half dozen widely distributed genuine synthetic detergents available, another 400 brands are nevertheless being offered for sale. A survey in Milwaukee alone showed 200 brands competing for public favor.

Many of these are pseudosynthetic detergents — i.e. products containing only a small amount of the synthetic, mixed with large doses of softeners that can damage a housewife’s hands or her fabrics. Some of them are so strong, indeed, that they can even mar the pattern of fine china.

Will soapless detergents ever completely replace soap?

In the days that lie ahead this question will be discussed heatedly by housewives and manufacturers. But there is general agreement on one point: a revolution in our soap habits is already under way and where it will end no one can safely predict. it