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Save Your Soap (Detergents 101)

July 22, 2009

Remember those commercials advertising how you can clean an entire sink of dishes with just a spoonful of soap? Have you ever tried this? It really works. Yes, really.

But it took me a while to figure this out. I have always used waaaaaaay too much soap. I would put a drop into every drinking glass, and on top of every plate. My dishes were sparkling clean. But after some experiments, I found that I can use ten times less soap. My dishes were just as clean, but they were a lot easier to rinse off and I have not purchased Palmolive in a loooong time. Stick with me, and learn why such a little amount is truly needed.

Without soap, how will my dishes get clean? Turns out, there are a lot of thing happening when you do your dishes.

First, plain old water helps to dissolve your crusty food. Often, I’ll fill up a particularly nasty pot with water and let it “soak” overnight. Although I do this mainly because I’m lazy, there is actually a lot of chemistry happening. Water, all by itself, is a solvent – it will dissolve many different types of food. Also, using warm or hot water accelerates this process:


Next, your hands do a lot of the heavy lifting. Whether you use a sponge, a scrubby-thingy, or a cloth, all of that manpower removes stuck on bits of food.

Finally, although water is one of the best solvents out there, there are some things that water cannot handle, namely oil. Since oil and water don’t mix, in order to remove oil from your dishes it takes a special kind of molecule. This is where soap comes in. There are various types of soap and detergents, but their unifying characteristic is that each molecule contains two portions. One portion of the molecule, known as the tail, is hydrophobic. Hydrophobic substances are attracted to oily and greasy things. The “head” of the molecule, however, is composed of many atoms including hydrogen and oxygen (hey, that’s what water is made of!). It makes sense, then, that the head of the molecule is hydrophilic and is attracted to water, and will bond to water and most other food particles.


Soap molecule from here

So as your scrubbing your plates, the little soap molecules will mix with the greasy food molecules, and everything will be easily rinsed off. This is the only role of the soap – as I mentioned above, most of the work is done by the water, and your hands. Therefore, its not necessary to use a lot of the stuff. Seriously, only a little bit is needed. Here’s how you can S.Y.S. (Save Your Soap):

Take any kind of bottle, and put a little bit of dish soap in a bottle, and fill the rest up with water. It saves soap, and it looks pretty too.


You can probably dilute a lot of other household chemicals, as well. Leave me a comment, and share your bright ideas!

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