Over the past six months or so I have often opened up Word and started to write this article and, every time I have concluded that it wasn't worth the hassle. This is such a contentious area that I would likley get lots of email telling me how wrong I was, regardless of what I actually said as whatever I say here someone isn't going to be happy with what they learn. However, I have decided to make an effort to explain it as much as possible in easy to understand chunks.
In The Beginning
How this all started was in the 1960's when biological soap powders where introduced by Proctor & Gamble and Lever. Now, to put things into perspective here, biological (bio) powders contain enzymes and that is pretty much the only difference between them and non-biological (non-bio) powders.
What happened was that some bright spark decided to advertise these with an animation of little critters "eating" the stains, it looked much like a Pacman type affair. People thought that there were little animals or bugs in the powder eating away at the stains and then them. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the whole concept was very, very poorly explained by the advertising.
Naturally during that period there was all sorts going on and words like "enzymes" were alien to many people and simply made them fearful of it on top of the poor explanation. But then, as I've said many times, you cannot explain the wash process in a thirty second advert slot.
In effect it became a "conventional wisdom" that soap powders or detergents where somehow causing skin irritations, even doctors said so, so it must be true. Or is it?
Fast History Of Washing Machine Performance
During the sixties and seventies there was of course little or no thought given to energy efficiency and so the machines used loads of water, even into the eighties a typical front loading washing machine used anything up to 150 litres of water for one cycle. Of course in the early nineteen nineties someone discivered a hole in the ozone layer and all of a sudden energy efficiency was front page news, so appliance manufacturers responded to the commercial pressures and started to produce more ecologically efficient appliances.
During that time the craze for higher and higher spin speeds also started which still goes on to this very day.
But there's a fly in the ointment here for washing machines and, to some extent, dishwashers as well.
You see the only real way to retain the performance, particularly good rinsing, is to maintain a certain level of water useage. To help you understand lets look at a basic washing machine wash cycle as a list with each bullet point representing a fill:
So, typically then for the average wash that most of us Brits use we have four fills and this is most likely the case across Europe and for most EU styled washing machines in the USA and the Australasia's as well.
Now however a typical washing machine that is A rated will use less than 75 litres of water per cycle, less than half the previous figure. This makes a huge difference to the performance and to how you have to wash as the clothing now does not have as much water to swirl around in.
The only real place that energy can be saved is explained throughout other articles, but the bottom line is that the wash cycle length has had to increase to compensate for the reduced water consumption and so we now have two hour plus cycles instead of the old forty minute ones that we used to have.
Washing Machine Detergent Dosing
So now we know that the water levels are reduced then we can reduce the detergent dosage, right?
Wrong! Totally and utterly wrong.
This is almost an urban myth within the industry as many a manufacturer has used this to explain away problems with wash performance, it is wholly incorrect, but it is a convenient cop-out from explaining all this.
Detergent is dosed on the following basis:
Quantity of clothing
Note that there is no mention whatsoever of "amount of water".
To let you understand this minor revelation (it is to a lot of people, even engineers in some cases) the amount of water is pretty much irrelevant to the detergent as the chemical and biological trickery only needs water to remove the staining and dirt, the water level doesn't matter so long as there is enough liquid (water) to retain the dirt removed in solution.
The water hardness matters as that affects the effectiveness of a part known as "builders" in the detergent that allow it to work. Over or underdose for the water hardness in your area and it won't work correctly.
And, of course, the quantity of clothing matters as that determines the amount of dirt to be removed, hence in large capacity machines you have to use more detergent to get the same results. Underdosing is a big problem with the new higher capacity machines which leads to poor cleaning.
We get loads and, I do mean LOADS, of complaints from people these days about a cycle taking more than two hours but, given the energy useage requirements this is normal on a "A" rated machine. What has happened is that, as the water level has been reduced the wash time has been increased to try to compensate for the fact that the clothing isn't as well swirled about in water, to put it into simplistic terms. There is little choice here without some real clever stuff and, the clever stuff makes a washing machine more expensive and then people won't pay for it.
So many, many people cheat the washing machine and cut corners.
What happens is this, the user simply uses the short programs which were not designed to wash the articles of clothing that are in the washer. Or, they simply constantly leave the "quickwash" button pressed in to save time as people assume that this will make no difference.
Again, wrong. Very, very wrong.
Let me explain. You see, you've got four fills and one of those the water has to heat up with, this is obviously the longest time that the machine has one dose of water in it so, the time it takes to to heat, let's say, 17 litres of water is a constant unless you alter the amount of energy used to do that. So yes, you can make it heat faster but you have to burn more power to do that, simple physics that we just can't get around.
So how then do you make the programs go faster without spending money on the clever stuff?
Short answer is that you don't.
What happens on the vast bulk of the quickwash functions is that it cuts out one rinse and tries to shave time wherever it can elsewhere. The upshot of this being that, if you study the user manual for your washing machine I'm quite sure that most will tell you that the quickwash is ONLY for "lightly soiled clothing".
Lightly soiled clothing is clothing that has not been worn next to the skin. Period.
So the bottom line on using quickwash and short cycles is that they are NOT suitable for the vast majority of clothing, bedding and towelling that you will wash.
One Rinse Too Few
I have had this conversation so often with so many people and it always ends up with something like, "Oh come on, you can't say that one rinse makes all the difference" can you?.
Well I'm afraid that yes, it can. It makes a absolutely immense difference to the amount of detergent removed from the clothing after the wash process, that's why they are there in the first place and, if it isn't done properly then there is a high risk that residues will be left, even if you can't visibly see them. After all, there's a lot of stuff like sweat, skin flakes, skin grease and other gunk that is on your clothes, but you don't see that either. But, if the detergent doesn't remove all this correctly then the clothes can tend to smell a bit ripe (although the perfumes can mask this) and there can still be detritus left on the clothes after a wash. Of course this isn't a good thing at all.
Washing Machines, Skin Irritation & Detergent
Combine all that I have just told you with the fact that most people don't dose correctly and, to be perfectly honest, it's a small wonder and a great credit to the washing machine and detergent manufacturers that the problem isn't worse than it is. As what happens is a combination of events, under dosing as well as overdosing and then on top of that cheating the program time and thereby getting poor results. However, often the poor results in this case can lead to skin irritations as all the stuff, be it dirt or detergent, isn't being correctly removed.
Yet is is, sadly, my experience that people would prefer to blame the big bad washing machine or detergent manufacturers rather than look at how they actually use the products. That may sound a tad harsh, but the truth often is and, if you put petrol in your diesel car you wouldn't be expecting it to perform correctly or get any sympathy from the manufacturer would you? It is perhaps not as obvious a mistake to not correctly use your washing machine and detergent, but the principal is the same.
One major detergent manufacturer told me flatly, "You have more chance of winning the lottery three weeks running than getting a skin rash from ***** powder or tabs, the amazing amount of testing and hoops we have to jump through just to get a formula to market ensure that".
Knowing the environmental lobby and the "no chemical" lobby I actually asked the likes of Ecover, Seventh Generation and a few others for their comments on this matter as well as the usual suspects and, interestingly, both Seventh Generation and Ecover acknowledged the same problem as the detergent giants. So from that it is pretty safe to conclude that the detergent is not normally the driving factor, the use of it and the washer is.
For me this was the really interesting part of this exploration of the issue, that there were so many people in the detergent industry that were aware of the problem but, as they made clear, until the way that washing machines performed was changed or people changed how they used the more energy efficient models, there is little that they can do about it.
Another culprit often cited as the reason for skin irritation. But just read the above and tell me, do you really think that these guys would sell something that can harm a hair on you? After talking to them, a lot, I don't honestly think that they would, in fact quite the opposite, they take any complaint very seriously indeed and look into every single one with an amazing gusto and enthusiasm.
Apart from which the adverse publicity and potential lawsuits make this highly unlikely at bet.
We have, over the past year or two, gone back to several detergent manufacturers looking for answers, largely to Ariel as we do rate them, but also to the others mentioned in this article and they've generally fallen over themselves to help us and provide information. Much of the sharing of information has actually helped to understand and write this and other articles.
During that process I actually visited one of the perfume laboratories and I have to say, these guys are just amazing to see and how they build an put together the perfumes. Almost all of them from natural ingredients. Almost all of them found in aftershaves, fine perfumes and allsorts of other products that, amazingly, don't cause any of these issues.
Funny that, isn't it?
Washing Machine Design
There are some manufacturers trying to combat this, ISE, Bosch/Neff/Siemens, Electrolux and a few more, trying to find out how we can have the best of both worlds. It is possible believe it or not, but there is a price to pay to get that level of sophistication in a washing machine. It is not an easy task to accomplish and remain within the EU guidelines on energy and water consumption. To be blunt about it, you are not going to find that level of sophistication in a cheap washing machine even from the manufacturers mentioned, end of story.
Manufacturers face a stark reality, manufacture based on price or on technology and quality.
But like most every consumer product it's what you, the customer, wants that drives the manufacturers. If you tell them that you want machines that are fast as well as ecologically efficient as is possible then that is what they will deliver, but you may have to be prepared to pay a little more to get what you want.
But then, that's very often the case.