Soap Science: Suds Don’t Clean Your Dishes
Just like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, we’ve all believed the bubble myth at one point in our lives.
We think that if we don’t see soapy pockets of air, our dishes, laundry, and tubs aren’t really clean.
But is there any truth to that belief?
As it turns out, there isn’t.
Bubbles have little to nothing to do with cleaning power, even though most people think they do.
That’s why we’ve decided to set the record straight on suds: to teach you how to tell when something is really clean and stop believing the bubble myth.
Where the Bubble Myth Began
If seeing is believing, how come we never see the majority of the things that make our daily lives possible?
We don’t see the cooks making our dinner for our delivery order, but our food appears at our doorsteps.
We don’t see the water heaters in the basement heating our houses in the winter, but our homes are warm.
We don’t see the batteries inside our iPhones, but we still spend countless hours Insta-stalking the friends of friends of friends without our phones plugged into the wall.
The world runs on nearly invisible workhorses that we rarely see and almost never think about. And the truth is that the soap molecules in water (i.e., the water beneath the bubbles) are what’s actually cleaning your sink.
So why do we think we need to see bubbles for something to really be clean?
Enter the manufacturers of the Bubble Myth: big corporate cleaning companies.
For decades, commercial soap manufacturers have added chemicals to their cleaners designed to create bubbles so that you’ll believe their products are working when you see foam.
They want you to think that if you don’t see bubbles, cleaning isn’t happening.
But bubbles and the chemicals that make them don’t actually serve a purpose.
The only real effect bubbles have had on cleaning products is the birth of another myth: that naturally derived cleaners don’t clean as well as their chemical counterparts.
People believe that because naturally derived cleaners don’t lather and foam, they must not be working, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Often, the chemicals used to create bubbles are often what leaves behind a thin layer of cleaner on your dishes, meaning that suds are actually making your dishes dirtier.
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Science Corner: Debunking the Bubble Myth
Still not convinced that your tub is clean without suds?
Let’s take a look at two similar cleaning products: dish soap and dishwasher detergent.
Both dish soap and dishwasher fluid use “surfactants” to clean your dishes.
Surfactants (aka surface-active-agents) are compounds that, when added to water, reduce the surface tension of water molecules and allow for cleaning agents to penetrate and dissolve anything on the surface of what’s being cleaned.
But surfactants and cleaning compounds don’t naturally generate bubbles.
So why does dish soap have bubbles and dishwasher detergent doesn’t?
Because companies add foaming agents to dish soap that, again, do nothing to help clean your dishes. They believe that you’ll think your dishes are cleaner if you see bubbles in the sink while you (or your kids) are washing them.
Think about it like this: if given a choice to buy gummy bears with Red Dye #6 or natural plant coloring, you would choose the ones with natural plant coloring.
Why? Because you know that at best Red Dye #6 is just another added ingredient, and at worst a dangerous additive.
You should think the same way when buying cleaning products.
Bubbles: all style and no substance.
If Bubbles Don’t Mean Clean, How Can I Tell if My Dishes Are Still Dirty or Not?
Throwing it back to our delivery/heater/iPhone metaphor, you don’t necessarily need to see something with your own eyes to know that it’s working.
But that doesn’t mean your eyes are completely useless when you’re trying to figure out if something is clean.
More often than not, you can if something is clean or not just by looking at it.
Clothes still hard and crusty after you run them through the washing machine and dryer? Use more detergent or try a different kind.
Gunk still caked onto your sheet pan after scrubbing it? Let the pan sit in soapy water for a bit then keep scrubbing.
Hardwood floors flat and lackluster? Get the mop back out and mix more cleaner into the bucket.
You know whether or not something is clean just by looking at it, so learn to trust your instincts.
They’re a much better indicator of cleanliness than bubbles.
Want to learn about cleaning myths? Check out What are Green Cleaning Products? to get the scoop.