The Primary Ingredients In Detergents

OU Kosher Staff

I. Surfactants (Soaps):

The primary ingredient in any cleanser or detergent is the surfactant – the chemical that separates the dirt from the object being cleaned. Surfactants are the primary area of OU Detergent Certification concern for the following reason:

The main ingredients used in the manufacture of surfactants are fatty alcohols. Since fatty alcohols (along with fatty acids and glycerine) can be derived from vegetable, animal, and petroleum sources, surfactants derived from fatty alcohols must have a Kosher Laundry Grade status. This means that there is no physical presence of animal product in the vegetable or petroleum fatty alcohol. The same applies for surfactants derived from fatty acids. Fatty acids and salts of fatty acids are anionic surfactants that are useful in the removal of particulate ground in dirt.

Surfactants can also be made from inorganic chemicals (Group Ones). An example of a Group One surfactant is sulfonic acid and its salts e.g. sodium sulfonate (these often appear on detergent plants Schedule A’s.) The sulfonate soaps are effective in hard water. Unlike ordinary soaps, soaps containing sulfonates do not form a scum in hard water.

Some of the major brands or names of certified surfactants that RFR’s who visit plants are going to see are Tergitol, Triton, Plurafac, and Glucopon.

II. Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (Quats)

Fabric softening agents are usually made from ethoxylated tallow quaternary amines (referred to as “quats” ). Again, since OU Detergent Certification policy prohibits the presence of an animal product even if it is inedible, softeners and detergents with softeners that contain tallow-derived quats cannot receive OU certification. However, quats can also be derived from coconut and/or soy. Accosoft and Biosofts manufactured by Stepan are commonly used softeners. The Accosoft 500 line is tallow derived. The Accosoft 700 line is coconut derived. The Schedule A’s have a remark describing which Biosofts may not be used. Today some softeners are made of petroleum derived linear polymers which pose no problem from a certified detergent standpoint.

III. Builders

Builders include water softeners – chemicals that remove minerals that are naturally found in water supplies – and fabric softeners. The removal of hard water minerals such as calcium and magnesium enables the cleansing process to use less surfactant. Builders also include anti-redeposition agents – chemicals that help prevent the re-entry of dirt into the material beings cleaned. Acusol, often found as an approved ingredient on our Schedule A’s, is a Rohm & Haas trademark for water-soluble polymers made for reducing encrustation, increasing soil removal and preventing soil re-deposition in detergent and cleaning products. Polyacrylate polymers are used at low levels and are designed to improve performance and properties of detergent formulations. Builders also include many Detergent Group One chemicals such as citric acid, sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonates and sodium silicates. These chemicals help maintain the proper PH level of the detergent and also help immobilize soils that have been removed from the materials and are now in the water, from re-entering the fabrics.

IV. Fabric Whitening Agents (Optical Brighteners)

Optical Brighteners enhance the brightness of the materials being cleaned. Tinopal and Optiblanc are two of the more common Optical Brighteners found in detergent plants. Optical Brighteners are listed on our Schedule A’s as Detergent Group Ones.

V. Detergent Dyes and Colors

All dyes and colors are listed as a generic Detergent Group One.

VI. Detergent Perfumes

All perfumes are listed as a generic Detergent Group One.

VII. Bleaches

Bleaches whiten materials and surfaces. The two primary bleaching chemicals are chlorine and hydrogen peroxide. Again we are dealing with Detergent Group One items.

VIII. Preservatives

Since the surfactants used are mostly vegetable derived, they are prone to spoilage.
Preservatives are used to kill bacteria that may feed upon the organic surfactants. Some of the examples of preservatives are Dowicils, Gluteraldehyde, Formaldehyde, DMDM Hydantoin. Detergent preservatives are Group Ones.

IX. Enzymes

Enzymes are utilized primarily in laundry detergents as opposed to dish detergents.
There are three major categories of enzymes used:

  • a) L Proteases – enzymes that break up protein.
  • b) L Amylases – enzymes that break up starches and sugars.
  • c) L Lipases – enzymes that break up fat stains.

Enzymes are treated as Group Ones.

X. Miscellaneous:

Included under the title Miscellaneous are a number of other minor ingredients including: Chelating Agents (that remove metals from the materials and water). EDTA (Ethylenediamine Tetraacetic Acid), a Group One ingredient, is a common chelating agent found in detergent plants. Not only is it useful as a detergent component, but is also used by hematologists to break up blood clots. Fillers give more body to a detergent. Cellulose (Group One) is often used as a filler. Materials such as Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) (Group One) are used to regulate the viscosity of a liquid detergent, enabling it to flow more easily. Various solvents and salts (again Group Ones) may be added for product quality control purposes.

It might be an interesting experience to go through your Detergent Schedule A with your contact and ask him or her to explain where each ingredient fits in the context of the categories mentioned above.


With the invaluable guidance of Mr. Ash Gandhi, Vice President of Research & Development, and of Quality Assurance at Manhattan Products, Carlstadt, NJ.