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Soaps & Detergent: History (1900s to Now)


The chemistry of soap manufacturing stayed essentially the same until 1916, when the first synthetic detergent was developed in Germany in response to a World War I-related shortage of fats for making soap. Known today simply as detergents, synthetic detergents are non-soap washing and cleaning products that are "synthesized" or put together chemically from a variety of raw materials. The discovery of detergents was also driven by the need for a cleaning agent that, unlike soap, would not combine with the mineral salts in water to form an insoluble substance known as soap curd. 

16HistHousehold detergent production in the United States began in the early 1930s, but did not really take off until after World War II. The war-time interruption of fat and oil supplies as well as the military's need for a cleaning agent that would work in mineral-rich sea water and in cold water had further stimulated research on detergents.

The first detergents were used chiefly for hand dishwashing and fine fabric laundering. The breakthrough in the 17Histdevelopment of detergents for all-purpose laundry uses came in 1946, when the first "built" detergent (containing a surfactant/builder combination) was introduced in the U.S. The surfactant is a detergent product's basic cleaning ingredient, while the builder helps the surfactant to work more efficiently. Phosphate compounds used as builders in these detergents vastly improved performance, making them suitable for cleaning heavily soiled laundry. 

By 1953, sales of detergents in this country had surpassed those of soap. Now detergents have all but replaced soap-based products for laundering, dishwashing and household cleaning. Detergents (alone or in combination with soap) are also found in many of the bars and liquids used for personal cleansing. 

Since those early achievements in detergent and builder chemistry, new product activity has continued to focus on developing cleaning products that are efficient and easy to use, as well as safe for consumers and for the environment. Here's a summary of some of those innovations: 
18Hist 1950s
Automatic dishwasher powders
Liquid laundry, hand dishwashing and all-purpose cleaning products
Fabric softeners (rinse-cycle added)
Detergent with oxygen bleach
21Hist 1980s
Detergents for cooler water washing
Automatic dishwasher liquids
Concentrated laundry powders 
19Hist 1960s
Prewash soil and stain removers
Laundry powders with enzymes
Enzyme presoaks 
22Hist 1990s
Ultra (super concentrated) powder and liquid detergents
Ultra fabric softeners
Automatic dishwasher gels
Laundry and cleaning product refills
20Hist 1970s
Liquid hand soaps
Fabric softeners (sheets and wash-cycle added)
Multifunctional products (e.g., detergent with fabric softener) 
Disposable cleaning wipes
Pre-measured dissolvable packets
Spa scents and natural options