Detergent & enzymes

Written by tanya lee
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Detergent & enzymes
All living organisms produce enzymes. (papaye image by Tadzio from Fotolia.com)

Many of today's laundry detergents contain enzymes, organic substances that help break down other organic molecules, such as those that form food stains on clothing. These "biological laundry detergents" have several advantages over detergents that do not contain enzymes, according to several sources including the Housekeeping Channel.

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Definition

Enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts for chemical reactions that break down proteins, starches, fats and other substances. They are present in all living organisms. The same types of enzymes present in your digestive system to help your body process food, for example, when added to laundry detergents, help remove food stains from clothing, according to the website Encyclopedia.com.

Types

Thousands of enzymes exist in nature. The enzymes most often used in laundry detergents are proteases, which break down proteins, lipolases, which break down lipids (fats), and amylases, which break down starches and other carbohydrates. Adding these enzymes to laundry detergent make the detergent more effective in removing food stains, which are composed of fats, starches, carbohydrates and protein.

Action

An enzyme locks onto a substance, such as fat, and begins a chemical reaction that breaks it down. Once an oily stain on clothing has been broken down and loosened by the enzyme, it is much easier to remove from the fabric. Non-enzyme laundry detergents are composed mostly of surfactants. Surfactants function to reduce the surface tension of water, which helps disperse the molecules that form a stain on clothing to combine with water in the washer and stay in suspension until they are removed during the rinse cycle, according to the Soap and Detergent Association.

Benefits

Laundry detergents containing enzymes have several benefits. They allow the consumer to wash clothes at a lower water temperature, which saves energy. Washing clothes in hot water removes stains, particularly oily or greasy stains, better than washing them in warm or cold water if you are using a detergent that contains surfactants but no enzymes, again according to the Soap and Detergent Association. Adding enzymes to laundry detergents provides another means of removing stains that makes the detergent effective at lower water temperatures. Also, since enzymes in laundry detergents remove stains more effectively, they prevent having to rewash clothes, which saves energy and water.

Environmental Impact

Enzymes are natural, biodegradable proteins. They are nontoxic to wildlife and fauna, and will not cause harm if they are accidentally ingested (though ingesting laundry detergent would cause considerable harm because it includes so many other components that could be toxic). Inhaling enzymes in high concentrations could also create health problems, but this is an issue for people who work in factories that make enzymes or use enzymes in the production of products, not for people who use laundry detergents with enzymes. Laundry detergents containing phosphates do present an environmental harm because when the phosphate enters water bodies, it promotes algae bloom, which deprives other organisms in the water of oxygen. Colourants and soda in laundry detergents are also harmful to the environment.

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