PNG images: Washing Powder

Laundry detergent, or washing powder, is a type of detergent (cleaning agent) that is added for cleaning laundry, commonly mixtures of chemical compounds including alkylbenzenesulfonates, which are similar to soap but are less affected by hard water. While detergent is still sold in powdered form, liquid detergents have been taking major market shares in many countries since their introduction in the 1950s.

Laundry detergent pods have also been sold within the United States since 2012 when they were introduced by Procter & Gamble as Tide Pods. Earlier instances of laundry detergent pods include Salvo tablets sold in the 1960s and 1970s.

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From ancient times, chemical additives were used to facilitate the mechanical washing of clothing with water. The Italians used a mix of sulfur and water with charcoal to clean cloth. Egyptians added ashes and silicates to soften water. Soaps were the first detergents. The detergent effects of certain synthetic surfactants were noted in Germany in 1917, in response to shortages of soap during World War I. In the 1930s, commercially viable routes to fatty alcohols were developed, and these new materials were converted to their sulfate esters, key ingredients in the commercially important German brand FEWA, produced by BASF, and Dreft, the US brand produced by Procter and Gamble. Such detergents were mainly used in industry until after World War II. By then, new developments and the later conversion of aviation fuel plants to produce tetrapropylene, used in household detergents, caused a fast growth of domestic use in the late 1940s.

The use of enzymes for laundry was introduced in the early part of the 1900s by Otto Rohm. Only in the latter part of the century with the availability of thermally robust bacterial enzymes did this technology become mainstream.

Soap is, by weight, relatively ineffective and it is highly sensitive to deactivation by hard water. By the 1950s, soap had almost been completely replaced by branched alkylbenzenesulfonates, but these detergents were found to be poorly biodegradable. Linearalkylbenzenesulfonates (LABs), however, proved to be both highly effective in cleaning and more biodegradable than the branched relatives. LABs remain the main detergents used domestically. Other detergents that have been developed include the linear alkylsulfonates and olefinsulfonates, which also resist deactivation by hard water. Both remain specialty products, for example only an estimated 60 million kilograms of the sodium alkylsulfonates are produced annually. During the early development of non-soap surfactants as commercial cleaning products, the term syndet, short for synthetic detergent, was promoted to indicate the distinction from so-called natural soaps.

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