Saturday, July 22, 2017

Soap is Soap

There really is no major difference between different brands of soap.
A reader asks whether I like the Foca brand of Mexican Soap.   Does it get your whites whiter?  What about ring-around-the collar?   Americans are obsessed with laundry soap, as we are bombarded with ads for laundry detergent on the television.  It is a billion-dollar industry, and huge corporate conglomerates have been built around soap brands - and the idea that one kind of soap is "better" than another.

I heard this ad so much as a child, I can recite it from memory.  "You try scrubbing them out, you try soaking them out..."   A lot of money was spent on saturation advertising of soaps.

And beyond soaps, there were add-ons, like water softeners and bleaches.   America's soap companies fueled this insecurity on the part of people about the cleanliness of their clothes.  And yes, I can recite this one from memory too, "My husband, some hot-shot, here's his ancient Chinese secret, Calgon!"

The reality is, of course, that the basic formulation of soap hasn't changed much since our ancestors rendered down bear fat in huge kettles and mixed it with fireplace ashes to form gray bars of caustic glycerine.  Soap allows insoluble particles to become soluble in water, so they can then be rinsed away.  There really is nothing else going on.  There is no "Miracle Additive X!" that makes "Whites Whiter, Colors Brighter!"  There is just soap and bleach, for the most part.

Of course, in the 1960's we did have a miracle additive called Phosphates, but some have argued these are bad for the environment and many soap companies have moved to "phosphate-free" formulations.

Concentration is one aspect of soaps.   In the 1980's and 1990's we started being hammered by ads for orange, lemon, or other fruit-flavored cleaners, sold in infomercials by hyperactive guy who, sadly, is dead today.  These cleaners work well, of course - I buy the generic "orange cleaner" version at Dollar Tree in the big spray bottle (or the even bigger refill bottle) and they even have a powdered version that would make gallons of the liquid.  It is basically just a really harsh detergent and it is great for degreasing things, taking out stains, cleaning countertops or taking a layer of skin off your hands.

It is magic?  No, not any more than dishwasher detergent is magic - it is just so powerful it can take paint off your car (or at least etch it).   The deal is mostly strength, or concentration of the soap.   And that is why I say that dollar tree laundry detergent (liquid) is not so good.  It is very watered down and it seems like you have to use twice the recommended amount to get anything clean.

Bleaching agents are the other "secret ingredient" in many laundry detergents to get your "whites whiter" - and they do so at the expense of longevity of your clothes of course.   But better to have a shirt you can wear, that has its service life slightly reduced, than one with a big pizza stain on the front, right?

Fragrance is of course a big seller, and one of the things most often advertised is how such-and-such a brand-name soap leaves your clothes smelling "springtime fresh".   But of course, most of these scents are overpowering and some people even have allergic reactions to them.   Others report that when you go for a hike in the woods, smelling "springtime fresh" tends to attract every bug known to mankind.   Detergents, shampoos, and body soaps with flower fragrances tend to attract bugs.   Myself, I detest overpowering perfumes and scents in anything.  It is not getting your clothes cleaner, but just making you smell like a tart's handkerchief.

"I've smelled that cologne before, and I smelled a rat!"

Americans are obsessed with the cleanliness of their clothes, which is reflected in the sale of $1000 and up washing machines, as well as the plethora of ultra-expensive laundry detergents.   And this is funny, as compared to our European friends, we do tend to wear shitty clothes - ill-fitting baggy stuff that we buy for cheap at the big-box store that is made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh.  And yet I get e-mails from readers who try to convince me that a $2000 LG front-loader washer is "worth it" because it is gentler on your clothes and will make them last longer.    And I guess if we had expensive clothes in America, this might make sense.

And if you had really expensive clothes, you'd have your personal assistant drop them off at the cleaners.   Don't have a personal assistant?   Stop playing pretend rich, then.

But the reality is, most of us wear pretty lame stuff, not something from a runway collection, and obsessing about what upscale detergent or fancy washer to use is, in my opinion, pretty idiotic.  Oh, and a good way to go broke, over time.  The poor obsess about brand names far more than the rich do, and maybe that says something right there.

Why do we need to clean clothes?   Well, if you are above the age of 10, you no longer worry about grass stains or mud on your clothes, as they posit in the detergent ads.   If you have blood stains on your clothing, maybe you have bigger problems than Tide can solve (plastic garbage bags, rubber gloves, a gallon of bleach, and a good alibi might be in order).  What is making your clothes "dirty" is your sweat and your dead skin cells, which you shed by the millions every hour.   Ordinary soaps will take out this kind of dirt and leave your clothes smelling fresh and feeling clean. 

But the point of this blog posting isn't about soap.   It's about the idea and how the idea gets planted in our brain, that one soap is "better" than another, and moreover that we should swear brand loyalty to a soap that is two to five times as expensive as another type, on the premise that it works better, when in fact, there really isn't much of a difference in performance, or if there was, it isn't noticeable.

Soap is soap.  Cars are cars.  Houses are Houses.  A pair of jeans is a pair of jeans.  Spending more isn't going to necessarily make your experience better, just more expensive.   And in fact, in terms of bang-for-the-buck, often the very cheapest and the most expensive are the worst options, with something in the lower part of the middle being the best value.  Or so it seems to be.

As I noted before, I found that the "brand name" detergents are just far too expensive and don't really get my clothes cleaner.   Super-cheap dollar-tree detergent is maybe too far in the other direction (but that does not mean everything they sell is no good, far from it).   I found a happy medium in this Foca soap.  Works for me - your mileage may vary.  I stopped worrying about "ring around the collar" when I stopped wearing shirts with collars, for the most part.

Oh, and by the way, this idea that some clothes are "delicates" seems odd to me.  I own a closet full of pure silk Hawaiian shirts, some of which are over 20 years old.  The shirt shown in my thumbnail picture, I still have (it is a poly blend) and it still fits and wears well after over two decades.   Silk is one of the most durable fabrics known to mankind.   I laugh when people call silk a "delicate" - it wears like iron.  Or at least quality silk does.

I should also note that it is possible to over-clean some clothes.  I lost a really nice Adolfo silk blazer that I bought for $99 at Marshall's - it fit like a glove!  But I kept taking it to be dry-cleaned, far too often, and I got it back one day with the lining shrunken and the shoulder pads wadded up like balls.  I loved that jacket, and it would have lasted a lot longer with less cleaning.   Underwear,  shirts, socks - yes, they should be washed after each use.  Jackets and pants?  Maybe less so.  Just my two cents.

 I really miss that jacket. 

UPDATE: A reader writes:

You wrote (in your blog),

"... the basic formulation of soap hasn't changed much since our ancestors rendered down bear fat in huge kettles and mixed it with fireplace ashes to form gray bars of caustic glycerine."

Not quite. Fat is basically a compound (an ester) of glycerine with any of various fatty acids (carboxylic acids). Soap is the sodium salt of the fatty acid part. The glycerine moiety of fats is not even always part of in the final product. [what about glycerine soaps?]

More than that, most laundry detergents are not made from fats or plant oils at all, but are sodium salts of sulfonic acids rather than fatty acids. (Somewhat better performance, especially in water with a high calcium content (“hard water”).)

There are a few actual laundry soaps still on the market — Fels Naptha, Ivory Snow. (Ivory brand bar soap was originally created as a laundry soap.) BTW, I’ve tried Fels Naptha just for the heck of it, and it does the job, but is a bit less convenient to use, as it needs to be dissolved first.

Most bath soaps are actual soaps, as they are milder on the skin than sulfonic acid detergents or other degreasers. (Ivory soap is actually very harsh and alkaline as bath soaps go, as, again, it was originally a laundry soap.)

However, your basic idea, that detergent is a relatively cheap product with little to distinguish the high-end brands, is probably mostly correct.

I have noted myself also that a smaller amount than recommended, as little as 1/8 of a cup by volume, of powdered detergent does as good a job as more does, on all but very heavily soiled clothes. For stains, the detergent for the entire load, can be applied directly to the stained part (as in those 1960s Whisk (TM) ads). I’ve also found that soaking clothes (either in a bucket, or just in the washing machine with the cycle interrupted) makes them come out a little cleaner. The washing machine spends most of its time sitting idle anyway!

All good points, if not a bit technical for me.  I have a bar of Fels Naptha as a friend says it is good for spot stain removal.   Sometimes the old ways are best.