Thursday, February 23, 2012

This Is A Game Called "Fun With Dishwasher Detergent." It Is A Boring Game.

Update: Whether you choose to make your own dishwasher detergent or not, vinegar is a consistently excellent rinse aid AND it also helps keep the dishwasher itself clean.

As some of you know, I am a ho about Pinterest and spend an inordinate amount of time on it.  Through a girl I went to high school with, I ended up at a blog with a recipe for homemade dishwasher detergent, and I thought, okay, Internet.  I'll bite.

Let me just preface this by saying that I am fucking obsessed with my dishwasher.  I've lived in New York since 2003 and this is the first time I've ever had one.  When I saw it while apartment hunting, I pretty much lost my shit almost as hard as when I recently ate a very wonderful molasses cookie that Jessi made, watched Jurassic Park for the first time on VHS at a ski cabin in Vermont, and Melissa explained that all- ALL- her young years, her whole life, she never understood that it was about embryos.  EMBRYOS!!!!!!!!  She just thought Newton was hungry.

                                            Pictured: "Newton"

Pictured: What Owen consumed because he could not have any cookies since he is a pilot.  The results can be seen in the background.

So yeah, the dishwasher is wonderful if you cook from scratch, because you just make so many dishes which is the worst.  Obviously, I had to find an eco-friendly dishwasher detergent.  In terms of cost and environmental impact, the powder form is best, and it's best if it comes from a cardboard box rather than plastic.  When Melissa still lived with me, we ended up using seventh generation, which is one of their few products that doesn't disappoint.  But when I saw that DIY post I referenced a million years ago in this post before I got distracted by Jurassic Park and how Jeff Goldblum looks like a swarthy version of Melissa and Jessi's Uncle Darren, I thought it was worth some investigation.

This, however, prompted concern from Leah, since she was worried a homemade detergent wouldn't get rid of the diseases she felt were possibly lurking on the plates.  It makes sense that she would be nervous- besides the griminess of our apartment, the marketing we've experienced our whole lives has suggested that if we let a piece of raw chicken touch the countertop, we are going to get salmonella and die.  But this made me wonder, just in general- how "clean" do dishes actually ever get?  And if a dishwashing liquid doesn't contain chemical antibacterial agents, how do germs ever get killed?  Moreover- how the fuck does soap even work?

I turned, of course, to The Net.  Because that is what people call it.

Question #1:  How Does Soap Work?
Soap, apparently, works by looking a a combination of lollipops and sperm.  TRY NOT TO THINK ABOUT THAT LAST SENTENCE TOO MUCH I JUST GROSSED MYSELF OUT REAL BAD.  The heads (pause) are hydrophilic.  They LOVE water, almost as much as Donut loves being little.  The tails (pause) are hydrophobic, love each other (pause), and so for whatever reasons they make this spherical joint right here that is called a micelle:

When soap is in water, and it comes into contact with grease/oil and the dirt that is stuck to it, it busts into it and makes a new, grimier micelle with the grease/oil/dirt stuck inside, which the water then rinses away.  If you have hard water (pause), the minerals in the water react with the soap to form a precipitate, which is what soap scum is.  Other effects: "[t]he insoluble salts form bathtub rings, leave films that reduce hair luster, and gray/roughen textiles after repeated washings."  WOW.  It is a good thing I live in New York where I do not have hard water and I have cockroaches instead.

Question #2:  What Is Detergent?
"Detergents were developed in response to the shortage of the animal and vegetable fats used to make soap during World War I and World War II. Detergents are primarily surfactants, which could be produced easily from petrochemicals. Surfactants lower the surface tension of water, essentially making it 'wetter' so that it is less likely to stick to itself and more likely to interact with oil and grease."

"Detergent" used to just mean "cleaning agent."  However, it would appear that in current usage, "detergent" generally refers to a synthetic, petrochemical-based cleaning agent.  

Question #3:  Why Detergents and Not Soap?
"You may well ask why soap, which served well for so many years, was eventually displaced. Soaps are cheap and they are manufactured from a renewable source, whereas many of the synthetic detergents are made from petrochemicals. Soaps are also biodegradable; that is, they are readily broken down by bacteria, and thus they do not pollute rivers. However, due to their gelling properties, soaps do have a greater tendency to clog sewerage reticulation systems than synthetic detergents. The grease trap of a non-sewered house was often laden with soap. But the most important reason for the displacement of soap is the fact that, when a carboxylic acid soap is used in hard water, precipitation occurs....You may live in an area where the water is extremely soft. But calcium and magnesium ions are present in the dirt that you wash out of your clothes, so that some precipitation still occurs if soap is used, and gradually deposits are built up in the fabric.

There are other disadvantages with soap; it deteriorates on storage, and it lacks cleaning power when compared with the modern synthetic surfactants, which can be designed to perform specialised cleaning tasks. Finally and very importantly from a domestic laundry point of view, soap does not rinse out; it tends to leave a residue behind in the fabric that is being washed. A residue gradually builds up and causes bad odour, deterioration of the fabric and other associated problems."

(Also interesting- the amount of foam generally does not correspond to the amount of cleaning power a substance has, unless you have very little liquid involved.)

...Modern detergents contain more than surfactants. Cleaning products may also contain enzymes to degrade protein-based stains, bleaches to de-color stains and add power to cleaning agents, and blue dyes to counter yellowing. Like soaps, detergents have hydrophobic or water-hating molecular chains and hydrophilic or water-loving components. The hydrophobic hydrocarbons are repelled by water, but are attracted to oil and grease. The hydrophilic end of the same molecule means that one end of the molecule will be attracted to water, while the other side is binding to oil."

Here is one thing I found particularly interesting from this article:
"Neither detergents nor soap accomplish anything except binding to the soil until some mechanical energy or agitation is added into the equation. Swishing the soapy water around allows the soap or detergent to pull the grime away from clothes or dishes and into the larger pool of rinse water. Rinsing washes the detergent and soil away. Warm or hot water melts fats and oils so that it is easier for the soap or detergent to dissolve the soil and pull it away into the rinse water."

Summary of How Soap/Detergent Works Research:
SO.  Soaps are from animal or plant sources; detergents are (generally) made with petroleum byproducts.  Soaps and detergents/surfactants (let's ignore the other ingredients in commercial detergents for now) are just Mr. Banana Grabbering oil/grease and its attached dirt, with the aid of agitation.  Soaps and detergents do NOT disinfect, like bleach.

Throughout the history of time, then, scullery hoes rendered dirty plates suitable for eating on again by essentially pushing the germ-attached dirt away.  However, the thinking today is often that old timey people were gross and probably gangrenous, and that if we don't avail ourselves to the triclosany fruits of modern science, we will be too.  This brings me to the next question:

Question #5:  How Clean Do Dishes Need To Be To Be Safe?
At this point, I think we've all heard the arguments against chemical antibacterial cleaners like the aforementioned triclosan because they inhibit our body's ability to naturally defend itself and lead to the creation of superbugs.  But even ignoring that, it looks like a number of tests indicate that use of antibacterial cleaners doesn't actually make you less likely to get sick.  I think this Scientific American blog provides a pretty readable rundown of this (if you want to really nerd out, Rae-style, read some of the comments section).  If you're too busy being a modern 90s businesswoman to read it, it notes that a professor who "surveyed all of the experimental or quasi-experimental studies published in English between 1980 and 2006 on the effectiveness of different hand washing strategies" discovered that plain soap and water was more efficacious at preventing disease than the antibacterials. 

Apparently, the effects of antibacterial cleaners are still not well understood, but some scientists think that they are disruptive because they kill the regular bacteria that live on us, leaving us more vulnerable to freeloading newcomers who just Houseguest their way in.  Because apparently, it seems like the key to healthy cleaning is really in limiting the number of bacteria that gets all up in you, not firebombing them into oblivion. 

After delaying this post for way too long, perhaps distracted by that Jeff Goldblum painting, my conclusion is that for the dishes to be "safe," any soap/detergent that's effective at removing food debris is adequate, especially since a dishwasher supplies reasonably hot water.  However, a dishwasher that really effectively removes all the grime is somewhat rare in my experience- more often, this process is usually aided by some manual pre-rinsing or scrubbing.  So with both manual and automatic dishwashing, it's not imprudent to consider additives to the dish soap or dishwashing detergent that will make it more efficacious, as long as the environmental or human impact is benign.  The seventh generation detergent includes the following ingredients:

Sodium carbonate (water softener and alkalinity builder), sodium sulfate and sodium chloride (promote flowability), citric acid (water softener), sodium silicate (protection agent and alkalinity builder), polyaspartic acid (water softener and anti-filming agent), ppg-10-laureth-7 (anti-spotting agent), sodium percarbonate (removes stains and water softener), protease and amylase (enzyme soil removers).

Enzymes, citric acid, other shit I don't know about- these all work to make the detergent more effective and to address some of the deficiencies noted about soap above, like its tendency to form soap scum.  From some cursory googling, it looks like it's certainly possible to make your own enzyme cleaners from citrus peels, to get your hands on some citric acid by merely opening a Kool Aid packet, and to throw a bunch of stuff together to make your own detergent.  But unless you have an obscenely cheaper source of these ingredients, per pound, than what this costs, which is not much, it looks like you're better off spending your spare time getting drunk and making bread, because carbs are a lot better baby daddy bait than soap.  

(N.B. That's certainly not to say this is the case with all DIY cleaning products- throwing some citrus peels or drops of essential oil in a bottle of vinegar to make toilet bowl cleaner takes approximately 10 seconds and it definitely saves you a considerable amount of money on something you're literally throwing down the drain.  But with more complicated recipes, again, if you have disposable income, just spend it on the Rossi.)


Sarah said...

What's your pinterest? I wanna follow you

Heather said...

Knockersby Q. Flansworth! Are you on Pinterest? Holla at me!

Sarah said...

I added you! I wanted to go to your birthday party, btw, but I didn't have your address and phone number and then forgot