Cold-Water Detergents Get a Cold Shoulder
Tom Uhlman for The New York Times
A researcher for Procter & Gamble, Jack English, with fabric test samples. P.&. G makes Tide Coldwater, a category leader.
By ANDREW MARTIN and ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Published: September 16, 2011
Newly formulated laundry detergents can wash most clothes perfectly well in cold water, manufacturers say, but customers are stubbornly refusing to turn down the temperature. Although some of these detergents have been available for several years, customers cling to mom’s age-old advice that hot water washes best — squandering energy and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
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(In Japan, consumers routinely do their laundry in cold water.)
About three-quarters of the energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions from washing a load of laundry come from heating the water — a practice that, scientists say, is often wasteful and unnecessary.
Procter & Gamble, the consumer products giant that makes brands like Crest and Gillette in addition to Tide, takes credit for the innovation in North America, which emerged from an evaluation of the company’s energy footprint in 2003.
After realizing how much energy was used to heat water for laundry, Procter set a goal to convert 70 percent of all washing-machine loads to cold water by 2020; by Procter’s estimate currently 38 percent of laundry loads globally were done in cold water.
But in trying to create Tide Coldwater, Procter’s scientists were confronted with a problem: hot water does help get clothes cleaner. In fact, thermal energy is one of three secrets to cleaning clothes, along with mechanical energy and chemicals.
“When you reduce one, you have to do better in the others,” said James Danzinger, a senior scientist who works on detergents for Procter & Gamble.
So the company set its scientists loose to find new chemicals to compensate, and what they came up with was a detergent, Tide Coldwater, with different enzymes and surfactants that work better in cold water.
Tide Coldwater was introduced in 2005. Several competitors followed with their own cold-water formulas, including Purex from Henkel, Wisk from Sun Products and Biokleen from a small company by the same name.
Do cold-water detergents work? Consumer Reports ranked Tide Coldwater among its top detergents last year, though some of its competitors did not rate as high.
The chemical composition of the new cold-water detergents, which cost about the same as regular detergents, is “totally different” from what was found in detergents a decade ago, said Dr. Mueller-Kirschbaum of Henkel. Some even contain chemicals that coat fabric fibers so that they are less likely to absorb dirt in the interval before the next washing.
Tide Coldwater, by far the best-selling cold-water detergent, now accounts for $150 million in sales in the United States and $60 million in Canada, the company says. By comparison, regular Tide has well more than $1 billion a year in sales in the United States alone.
Kiem Ho, director of laundry care for Henkel, predicted that cold-water detergents would remain a niche, unless the government provided incentives to use them or the industry waged a major campaign.
Sales data provided by Henkel shows that sales of cold-water detergents have declined by 16 percent in...