How Does Soap Work?

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Soap Molecules

  • Soap molecules are made of long chains of hydrogen atoms and carbon. The molecules have two distinct ends, and each plays an important role in the cleaning process. One end of the soap molecule is hydrophilic, or water soluble. This means it mixes well with water. The other end is hydrophobic, or water repellent, which enables the soap molecule to bind to or around the particles of dirt, oil or grease.

Binding: Removing Soil and Stains

  • When soap molecules come into contact with oil or dirt, the hydrophobic end of the molecule seeks out and attaches itself to the molecules in the dirt. After breaking up and binding to the dirt or oil molecules, the soap molecules disperse the dirt molecules and prevent them from reattaching to the material being washed.

Emulsification: Mixing Water and Oil

  • Because soap acts an emulsifier, which is an agent that is capable of mixing one immiscible liquid into another, the dirt molecules are now forced to remain suspended in the water. The soap molecules allow the dirt and oil to be rinsed away.

Builders: Softening the Water

  • Some soaps and detergents contain builders. Builders prevent the soap molecules from attaching to the calcium or magnesium ions common in hard water. By softening the water and increasing the amount of available soap molecules, builders enable soaps to effectively remove dirt and oils without interference.

Enzymes: Breakdown Assistance

  • In addition to builders, some soaps contain special enzymes which help to break down food deposits, oils and grease. Enzymes are generally specific to the type of substance they can break down, which means that not all enzymes are effective on all types of dirt.

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