Every time we use soap, whether to wash our hair or our clothes, dangerous chemicals run down the drain along with the sudsy water. And as we learn more about what those petroleum-based cleaning products do to the environment, we're taking action. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned triclosan and 18 other ingredients in antibacterial soap, for example. And in 2015, a federal ban on microbeads was passed, meaning personal care products from toothpaste to body wash can no longer use the tiny plastic specks that end up in the ocean or other bodies of water.
Now, a team of researchers believes they may have a better solution. Researchers from the University of Minnesota claim to have invented a new soap molecule made from renewable sources that could reduce the number of chemicals needed in soap products.
“Our team created a soap molecule made from natural products, like soybeans, coconut and corn, that works better than regular soaps and is better for the environment,” Paul Dauenhauer, a University of Minnesota associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science and a co-author of the study, said in a press release. “This research could have a major impact on the multibillion-dollar cleaning products industry.”
The new soap combines biodegradable ingredients to form a soap molecule known as oleo-furan-surfactant (OFS). Researchers found that OFS worked well in cold water where conventional soaps become cloudy and gooey — basically making them unusable. Also, OFS soaps were shown to form soap particles (called micelles) necessary for cleaning at low concentrations, which reduces the environmental impact on water systems.
The study, published in American Chemical Society's ACS Central Science, also showed the new soap molecule worked better with hard water. If you have hard water, minerals in the water combine with most soaps and turn them into a solid goo. According to the press release:
To combat this problem, most existing soaps and detergents add an array of additional chemicals, called chelants, to grab these minerals and prevent them from interfering with soap molecules. This problem has led to a long list of extra chemical ingredients in most conventional cleaning products, many of which are harmful to the environment. The new OFS soap eliminates the hard water problem by using a naturally derived source that does not bind strongly to minerals in water. The researchers found that OFS molecules were shown to form soap particles (micelles) even at 100 times the conventional hard water conditions. As a result, a cleaning product's ingredient list could be significantly simplified.
"The impact of OFS soaps will be greater than their detergent performance," said chemical engineering and materials science graduate student Kristeen Joseph. "OFS is made from straight carbon chains derived from soybeans or coconut which can readily biodegrade. These are really the perfect soap molecules."
The technology has been patented by the University of Minnesota and is licensed to Minnesota-based startup company Sironix Renewables.