A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do laundry balls really work?

July 25, 1997

Dear Cecil:

What do you know about those plastic ion laundry balls that supposedly replace detergent?

Cecil replies:

Here's what I know:

(1) People are charging as much as $75 for a set of little gizmos that look like they came as a prize in a Happy Meal.

(2) Fifty bucks a set is more typical, but even that has to be an outrageous markup inasmuch as there's an outfit in Hong Kong that will sell them to you for $3.60 a pair. (Minor drawback: you have to go to Hong Kong to pick them up.)

(3) If you believe Consumer Reports, even $3.60 is a rip because you can get equally good results tossing your kid's Koosh ball in the washing machine, i.e., none.

Taking all this into consideration, I figure laundry balls aren't just the name of the product, they're what you need to sell it.

But we believe in fairness around here. So I'll say this. We tested a set of laundry thingies (laundry disks rather than laundry balls, actually, but what's the diff?) with unexpected results. But more about that in a sec.

Laundry balls and such are mostly sold via direct marketing — catalog firms and "multi level marketing" concerns. An MLM basically is a network of individuals who sell a product and at the same time try to recruit other sellers, in whose profits they share. I'm not saying every MLM is a racket. There are probably a few people who thought their timeshare condos were a good deal, too. But MLMs do seem to hawk more than their share of junk.

Laundry balls/disks allegedly eliminate or greatly reduce the need for conventional laundry detergents. You get different stories on how they're supposed to work, including a lot of hokum about "structured water" and "nanotricity" and whatnot, none of which makes much sense. The most coherent account comes from a catalog firm called Real Goods:

1. Metallic elements (including copper and silver) in the activated ceramics [inside the device] release electrons which in turn produce ionized oxygen. This form of oxygen is a totally natural cleanser which breaks up dirt and organic compounds.

Sure, it's possible, says the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board. A metal could produce a peroxide, better known as bleach. But probably not enough to accomplish anything.

2. The activated ceramics also emit "far infrared electromagnetic waves" which cause water molecule clusters to disassociate, allowing much smaller individual water molecules to penetrate into the innermost part of the fabric and remove dirt.

SDSAB: All objects at room temp emit "far infrared"; this is known as "being warm." (Well, OK, "radiating heat energy.") No appreciable effect on water molecules.

3. When water contacts the activated ceramics, an abundance of OH ions is produced, reducing the surface tension of the water and greatly increasing its penetrating power. Ordinary detergents make use of this same principle, but do so by using harsh chemicals.

SDSAB: Possibly OH- ions, also known as hydroxide, could be created in this way, although not in large quantity. These would lower the water's pH. Substantially the same thing happens with lye soap and sodium hydroxide, the main component of Drano. What was that about no harsh chemicals?

But now to the practical test, which was conducted by my assistant Jane. (You may think it sexist that she got stuck doing the laundry, but she volunteered.) She stained various items of clothing with ketchup, chocolate, ink, grass, and "some of the purple dye I use for my hair." That Jane! She washed three batches, one with three laundry disks from Real Goods, one with Tide, one in plain water. As advised, she used a pre-wash stain treatment on all the batches. Result: little difference among the three except that the disks did better getting rid of the grass stain. "Hm," said Jane.

Round two. The disks got the wash "a tad" cleaner. Hmmmmm.

OK, the slightly better showing by the disks may be a fluke. Other investigations (e.g., the aforementioned CR test, reported in the February 1995 issue) found no difference. The real surprise is that Tide didn't perform much better than plain water. I'm not saying you need laundry balls or disks. But the soap makers' dirty little secret, you should pardon the expression, is that you might not need conventional detergent either.

Laundry balls: Taking folks to the cleaners

To the Teeming Millions:

Got some interesting mail about laundry balls. First, reader David Harris reported his satisfaction with the Laundry Solution, a laundry ball sold by TradeNet. "It has performed well even on the smelly dog blankets we keep on the furniture to ward of hair and dirt from a greasy Airedale," he wrote. "Without the detergent residue, cottons are noticeably fluffier without using softener or drier sheets (great for towels)." He went on to tout the company that developed the Laundry Solution for TradeNet, American Technologies Group, which "created a coolant that is both safe and 20 percent more efficient than freon, and is working on a particle beam device to neutralize nuclear waste." Laundry balls and particle beams! Are these guys brilliant or what?

Shortly afterward, another reader sent us some newspaper articles reporting that the Utah state division of consumer protection had sent a couple of TradeNet's laundry balls out for tests and found they contained, not crystal technology as claimed, but dyed water! A TradeNet spokesman says the state was testing an "earlier model." Meaning what — TradeNet at one point thought dyed water would actually work?

Other readers pointed out numerous explanations for the fact that, in our tests, laundry balls seemed to work as well as regular detergent: (1) laundry often contains a lot of residual detergent from earlier washings; (2) the stain remover often recommended for use with laundry balls itself contains detergent; and (3) the laundry ball may work by mechanical action — the equivalent of beating clothes on a rock. And of course you can't discount good old wishful thinking, which one suspects was a factor in the glowing evaluation by David Harris above.

One more thing. Amway listed a ceramic washing disk in a 1997 catalog, but decided not to sell the thing after tests showed it had "no measurable impact on overall cleaning." Figured you'd want to know.

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