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Bursting bubbles

MACK’s Anthony McCourt explains why everything you’ve been led to believe about bubbles is false
Soap sud in a bowl with bubbles on a blue background

This article first appeared in our Earth Day 2022 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, printed on 22 April 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Try this: put on some rubber gloves, fill a bowl with warm water and dissolve a dishwasher tablet in it. You will notice a distinct lack of bubbles.

Dishwasher tablets get cutlery, crockery, pots and pans spotless – all without the aid of bubbles.

In fact, bubbly detergents would actually make dishwashers and washing machines less effective, by reducing the very mechanical agitation that gets things clean.

At this point you might well be asking why, if bubbles are surplus to cleaning requirements, washing-up liquid produces a sink full of them.

It’s all down to the assumptions we make about the products that get us – and our belongings – clean, and advertising plays an important role in those expectations.

Why are bubbles there?

Writing in the Handbook of Detergents part A, Germaine Zocchi, Colgate-Palmolive Research and Development Inc., states that foam has ‘a clearly aesthetic utility in many detergents and personal care products’ – and acknowledges that it ‘may not add much to the overall effectiveness of the product’.

Germaine goes on to state that consumers interpret the production of foam – from the speed to the volume – as an important sign that a product is working; conversely, when bubbles disappear that’s a psychological trigger that a product’s cleaning potential has been exhausted.

A whole industry has been constructed to ensure bubbles form, pop, flocculate and coalesce with precision; the goal is to create cleaning products with ‘foam profiles’ that meet our expectations around how effective products should behave when we use them.

We want a copious, dense and luxurious foam from our shampoo and a ‘flash foam’ from soap and body wash. On the other hand a foamy surface cleaner would be a nuisance, a frothy mouth wash would be a disaster and bubbly residues have no place on dishes.

Money down the drain?

Getting the foam profile right creates an important – yet unsupported – impression of cleaning efficacy, product quality and reassurance that the product is working.

You might conclude the bubble industry is literally pouring money down the drain, which in itself isn’t a bad thing. But as well as being pointless, bubbles have a dark side that should make us think twice about how we use the products that create them – and whether we should use them at all.

The role of surfactants

You might have noticed two different surfactants – anionic and non-ionic – mentioned on the side of your detergent bottle, usually in (or close to) the ingredients section.

Many of us know that a lower level of surfactant is preferable, but we don’t hear much talk about why that is.

The non-ionic surfactant is a specialist at removing fat, oil and grease. Essentially it breaks down the interface between the soiling and the water, helping to dissolve and remove the dirt.

This surfactant is usually ‘low foaming’ or ‘non foaming’, and is less soluble than its anionic cousin in warm water. In fact, non-ionic surfactants perform better in cold water, but that’s not how we’ve been trained to wash dishes.

The anionic surfactant’s job is to stick to dirt particles, lift them from a surface and then hold them in suspension in the water. It’s this surfactant that creates the bubbles.

Most detergent manufacturers use both types of surfactant in their products, but invariably a larger ratio of the anionic because of the perceived (but unproven) link between bubble quantity and cleaning prowess.

What are surfactants?

The mildest anionic surfactants, such as potassium cocoate, are made from raw fats and oils, but they are less common because they are more expensive to produce.

The most widely used anionic surfactants are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS) and ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES).

Most surfactants are removed in the wastewater treatment process, but due to the vast volumes of surfactant used – in countless cleaning products all round the world – some unavoidably end up in the wider environment.

Aquatic ecosystems receive an almost continuous stream of surfactants from wastewater discharges and contaminated rivers, yet we don’t have any accurate sense of the long-term impact these surfactants are having on our oceans.

Unknown long-term impacts

Ecotoxicity studies concerning surfactants have focused largely on freshwater species; there aren’t many marine ecotoxicity and biodegradation studies, and marine bioaccumulation studies are practically non-existent.

We have no idea whether surfactants are accumulating to concentrations significant enough to cause unpredictable, and potentially irreversible, long-term effects.

According to the critical review Comprehensive review of several surfactants in marine environments: Fate and ecotoxicity: ‘It is clear that there is a real limitation in the required fate and toxicity data for these surfactants, which results in uncertainties in their risk assessment in the marine environment.’

What we do know is that SLS and SLES can irritate eyes, skin and lungs, especially with long-term use. SLS on its own is considered toxic to aquatic life, and SLES could also be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified ethylene oxide as a known human carcinogen that can also harm the nervous system, and 1,4 dioxane as a possible human carcinogen.

1,4-dioxane is also persistent, meaning it doesn’t easily degrade and can ‘persist’ in the environment long after it has been rinsed down the drain.

A cleaner antidote

The real cost of bubbles might remain unknown for years to come, but there are some good reasons to question whether they should be so fundamental to cleaning products and processes.

Beyond the surfactants themselves, detergent manufacturers add ‘foam stabilisers’ and ‘foam boosters’ to sustain the ‘foam mileage’ of their products.

This adds two more problems for the environment: more unnecessary chemicals in the toxic soup that ends up being washed down the drain, and more water used to rinse off bubbles we didn’t need in the first place.

I did a quick experiment and calculated I used an extra 1.5 litres of water to rinse away good-for-nothing bubbles in my washing-up bowl. 

At MACK we developed Dish Jockey as an antidote to the mind-boggling approach of the mainstream cleaning product market.

As well as being better for the environment, going heavier on the non-ionic surfactants means the washing-up liquid will be easier to mix at home.

As with most MACK cleaning products, it will be sold as a pod to keep its transport weight, packaging volume and carbon footprint down. Like the rest of our cleaning range, it will also – as per OECD regulations for ‘readily biodegradable’ products – biodegrade completely within 28 days. 

Don’t be alarmed when Dish Jockey doesn’t explode into sink full of bubbles – you’re getting the job done like a pro while also doing your bit for the planet.

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