Home Articles Resources Archives Mailing Lists Classifieds


Why Laundry Disks Don't Work

by Albert Donnay
January 1996

Question: I have stopped using detergents and now use three laundry disks which contain ceramic beads in them and one teaspoon of borax with each load. Thus far the clothes have come out clean and I am no longer suffering the ill effects of the normal laundry detergents. The package of disks costs about $65.00, but they last for a number of years. Hope this helps.

As marketing director for EcoWorks, Inc, an environmental products company that I started in 1990, I spent many months researching the Japanese "laundry disks" back when they first started appearing in the US (sometime in 1992 or 1993 as I recall). EcoWorks very much wanted to become a major distributor (we had even developed packaging, etc.) because we saw tremendous potential for such a product, especially among the chemically sensitive. But the deeper I dug into the claims being made, the more sceptical I became.

The bottom line (put up top for the convenience those of who don't want to read all the way to the end) is that these disks don't work as claimed, although they do get people to cut back on their use of borax, detergent, etc., which definitely is better for them, their clothes and the environment.

What brought me to this conclusion? My investigations included the following:

  1. Meeting and speaking repeatedly with the sole US importer, based in California, and reviewing the study commissioned from a Japanese lab that he distributes as evidence of the disks' effectiveness. Among simple questions he and the manufacturer can't answer are: why three disks instead of two or one or four? Why float the disks? How do temperature and pH of the water impact on their effectiveness? My conclusion from these discussions: The importer simply does not understand the claims the manufacturer is making and/or he is a smooth talking liar, while the Japanese lab report is so badly written up--no detail of methods, for example--that nothing can be learned from it.

  2. Discussions with a competing importer based in Canada and several 800# and PO Box advertisers of the product in this country, such as the one currently advertising in Our Toxic Times. Conclusion: none understand the basic chemistry of their claims, such as why the disks work or why the eventually stop working, and they only documentation they offer--if they offer any--is the same unpublished study promoted by the importer.

  3. Discussions with my sister-in-law, who is an Ivy League chemistry professor, about the product's claims, what the ceramics actually do to water, how they get used up and how they might be replenished (note that most retail promoters say the disks will last 2 years under normal use; the OTT advertiser even says 2 years if used once a day, which would mean over 700 loads...). Her informed opinion: the disks are ceramic ion-exchange resins of the kind used to soften water. That's all they do. Their rate of depletion (how long it takes all the ion-exchange sites to get filled up) depends on the hardness of the water they're put in, the water temperature (heat is a catalyst) and the concentrations of other ions in the water. The harder and hotter the water, the faster the resins get used up.

  4. Commissioning a small lab study from my sister-in-law's father, an industrial chemist who runs a company that develops detergent formulations and sells their ingredients to the major brands. One key goal of detergent formulations is to design molecules that can stick to water at one end and oily dirt at the other end, thereby keeping the dirt that washes out into the wash water from sticking again to your clothes, which are very good at holding on to oily dirt. The disks can't do this. Result: the disks have no cleaning power. The importer's straight faced response was that you still have to use some detergent for the tough stuff, just a lot less than normal. (In fact, some retailers include this admission in their literature, but not the one currently advertising in OTT.)

  5. Discussions with the product development staff at 7th Generation, a major eco-consumer catalog that had strongly promoted the disks but which abruptly stopped carrying them just as EcoWorks was getting interested. The importer said he'd cut them off due to a billing dispute, but when I checked, 7th G staff said it was because of customer complaints that started coming in a few months after sales began. Since they too thought little of the Japanese study, they decided to commission their own from an independent lab at considerable expense.

    It was done by a major US lab with lots of experience testing detergent formulations. The report it provided (which you may still be able to get from 7th G) was very detailed and rigorous: It compared the cleaning power of Tide vs. the disks vs. plain water on various types of test fabrics soiled with various kinds of stains but all washed in the same type of machine under identically controlled conditions. Results: Tide cleaned best, while the disks cleaned no better than water alone. (Water, in fact, cleaned better for some kinds of dirt and fabric.)

  6. Experiments at home, with my own washer, which at the time drained into a deep sink that allowed me to observe the dirty wash water before it went down the drain. I started using just the disks alone (no detergent)and, like everyone else who has tried these things, I was amazed at how clean my clothes were coming out. But the exit water was VERY soapy. Over and over and over again, there was still soapy water coming out of the washer.

    The reason, of course, is that my previously washed clothes still contained soap from prior washings that had not all rinsed out. It took weeks to diminish, which is around when my wife and I started noticing that the whites were no longer getting clean, especially oily dirt like on shirt collars and socks. The importer said you may need to add a tablespoon or two of detergent for the tough stuff, and when I did this the whole load was clean again!

The lesson to be learned from all this (which my chemistry relations confirmed for me) is that most Americans use way more detergent than needed. They are encouraged to do so, of course, by detergent manufacturers, who--just like toothpaste manufacturers--promote ads that show people using way more than needed. You really only need a tablespoon or two of most formulations to get a load clean. The extra cup that most people use leaves a lot of soap in the clothes after washing, which is exactly what so bothers the MCS people who can smell it. If you wash such clothes in plain water, the soap residue will wash out into the water and the entire load will get clean, even if only a few of the items still have soap residue.

Most families, and even most people living alone, do not wash exactly the same clothes over and over, which means it could take several weeks or months to rinse out their entire wardrobe in this fashion. All this time the disks would like they were working, especially since most people have washers that drain directly, so they never see the soapy waste water that's actually cleaning their clothes.

What is so obnoxious to me about the way these disks are being promoted is that the importer knows this as i've discussed it with him at length. This is exactly why he offers only a 30 day money back guarantee, which in turn is what all the retailers offer, even though they say the disks will work for a year or two. Under normal use, it will take most people a lot longer than 30 days to get all the soap out of their entire wardrobe. When their clothes stop coming clean (in month 2 or 3 or 4), the warranty has expired, and you're out $45 to $65 dollars.

I finally broke off negotiations with the importer when he refused to respond to the 7th G study or commission his own from any other lab in response...

I have since spoken with both the Federal Trade Commission and the Canadian equivalent who have received lots of consumer complaints and are investigating the retailers' various claims.

Anybody out there using these disks who thinks they work should stop using them for a couple of loads and see if whatever else they are doing (like adding a teaspoon of borax) still gets their clothes as clean. I bet they can't see a difference...

caveat emptor.
--Albert Donnay, MCS R&R

Addendum: Wed, 24 Jan 1996

Someone raised a valid point that the zeolite material in the disks does bind up some of the chlorine in the water, which helps cut back the chlorine smell in the clothes, which is a very important benefit for MCS people, even if they don't do anything towards cleaning. Just like zeolite air cleaners...

This article is copyrighted. No reprints without permission

Home Articles Resources Archives Mailing Lists Classifieds

Cyndi Norwitz / webmaster@immuneweb.org / Last Modified: 1/18/98