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Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Myth Part 2: Only using detergent gets my clothes clean

By Dr. Laundry September 15, 2006

A quick review of body soil:



  • Everybody has it and everybody is going to deposit it onto a lot of the things you use everyday

  • How much you deposit can vary but an average person produces ~50grams of body soil/day

  • This stuff can be a real feast for bacteria, germs and even dust mites

  • Not removing it can have some rather unpleasant side effects


Here’s some other interesting factoids. Most consumers are spurred to take action when they see a visible stain on their clothes. Yet, it’s estimated that 75% of soil in the washing machine is INVISIBLE. Body soil accounts for most of that number. It’s also estimated that over 60% of the laundry you wash has touched your body. Lots of body soil transfer opportunities.

Want to see what body soil looks like up close and personal? Below are three SEMs (Scanning Electron Micrographs) of some bedding that I received from employees. A SEM allows one to zoom in (3000X) for close-up detail down to the individual fiber level (check the lower right hand corner). Notice how the unwashed specimen has lots of coated and stuck on yuck. After washing in the leading detergent, a fair amount is gone, but one still sees rough parts to the fibers indicating the soil has not been removed. Finally, compare the sheet washed in the leading detergent and ¾ cup of Clorox Regular Bleach (CLB). Now that’s what I want to be sleeping on. They just look cleaner and remember they are also disinfected.

From these pictures, I hope you are convinced that washing with just detergent is NOT enough to get things clean. The good news is that using detergent and Clorox® Regular-Bleach1 together in every bleachable load can remove body soil that detergent may leave behind. Not to get too scientific here, but this works because bleach reacts with and breaks down body soil components into smaller, water-soluble particles, making them easier for detergent to remove. These smaller particles are easier to keep suspended in your wash water, helping to prevent body soil from landing back on your now clean clothes.

A couple of extra tips to maximize your body soil removal:


  • Use a good detergent and the recommended amount. Skimping may cost you cleaning power.

  • Consider a powdered detergent. They actually clean better than liquids. Make sure you get the powder dissolved to avoid appearance issues when finished.

  • Use the hottest water recommended for the item being washed. Hot water cleans better! If you are being energy conscious, use warm water and consider extending the wash cycle time or presoaking for a few minutes before starting the wash.

  • Don’t be afraid to check some of those colored items to see if they are bleachable. Try the simple bleachability test (see the sidebar of the blog) on an inconspicuous portion of the item. You might be surprised how many things are bleachable and they will thank you for being soo much cleaner (just kidding).