Q. Do I really need a bunch of different products to clean my laundry, dishes, body, hair, etc.? In the interest of using fewer products, especially when I travel, is there one product that would be best for all of the above areas? Why are there different products for dishes and laundry anyway? Why are there different products for hair and body? Is it all marketing?

Pittsburgh, PA

A. Dearest Beth,

Cleaning up really should be such a simple task: Take something dirty, add water and soap, swish it around a bit, and boom, it’s clean. But anyone who has ever been down the cleaning aisle knows that we’ve managed to make it a lot more complicated than that.

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On a recent shopping trip, I counted different, specialized soapy products for one’s hair, face, body, hands, dishes (two kinds there – one for handwashing and one for dishwashers), white clothes, dark clothes, delicate clothes, dogs with regular skin, and hamsters with eczema. (I may have made that last one up.)

It’s easy to look at this parade of bottles and think, as you have done, Can’t I just buy one and be done with it?

The answer: Well, sort of. Under all their muck-busting claims and spanking-fresh scents, these cleaning products all basically do the same thing: Grab grease and dirt and wash them away. But there’s a surprising amount of chemistry going on under all these suds, and carefully calibrated ingredients in the different formulas really do give you different results. That’s not to say all these ingredients are necessary or even healthy, Beth, but they are different.

The most basic distinction comes down to soap versus detergent. Soaps, technically, are made from natural fats or oils combined with an alkali (traditionally, lye). And they do scrub away our undesirables – but their main weakness is a tendency to react with minerals in water to form a nasty soap scum residue. Detergents battle this problem by adding chemicals called surfactants, which keep soap scum at bay, reduce the surface tension of water, and attack grease on a molecular level – all of which boost their cleaning powers. These days, most of the cleaners you mention – laundry, shampoo, dishes – are actually detergents.

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From there, like graduate students choosing their thesis topics, detergents become even more specialized. When you shampoo, it’s a detergent that actually washes oil out of your tresses. But we’ve all come to expect more from our shampoo than just a clean coif, so added ingredients condition hair for shininess, increase lather, and toss in color and fragrance. (Your hair doesn’t have to smell like apples to be clean, but many of us just can’t quit the idea that sweet scents equal good hygiene – and that’s marketing.) Similarly, body wash products often contain extra moisturizers because plain soap or detergents can be drying.

It’s the same deal with the detergents we apply to our roasting pans and grass-stained jeans: Basic surfactants do the dirty work, but extra chemicals give us more targeted results. Dish soaps are often much harsher than the ones we take into the shower, with added bleach and a higher pH to break down food chunks. And laundry detergents may contain stain-fighting enzymes and polymers much tougher than what we need to use on our bodies, plus bright dyes for the illusion of blindingly white whites.

All this is to say that you certainly could use one do-it-all detergent, Beth, as long as you’re satisfied with your results. You might have to give up a touch of glossiness in your hair or brightness in your T-shirts, but all your washables would still get squeaky clean. I’m not in the business of pushing particular brands, but you’ve probably already heard other green-minded people singing the praises of Dr. Bronner’s castile soaps for everything from hair-washing to toilet-sudsing. That could be a good one to try, even if you decide to simplify your soaps only whilst traveling.

And if you opt to keep your cleaning products diversified, I should note that all of these added ingredients we’ve been talking about – and indeed, some of the surfactants themselves – may pose some troubling risks to the environment and our health, from the hormone-addling phthalates we see in scented soaps to laundry-soap substances that pollute our waterways. As always, I point you to the Environmental Working Group and GoodGuide to help suss out the safest, greenest choices. And if you want to know exactly what goes into your potions, plus save money and reduce packaging (yay!), you can always go the DIY route. Here are some tips on making your own shampoo, laundry detergent, and dish soap.

May you find the simplest detergent that meets your needs and be done with it! There’s only so much brain space we should devote to soap, after all.



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