The importance of enzymes in detergent products

29th of March 2023
The importance of enzymes in detergent products

A.I.S.E. is the umbrella organisation representing the European detergents and maintenance products industry. Aisling O’Kane talks about the role of enzymes in detergent products.

What is an enzyme?

Enzymes are proteins that act as bio-catalysts which speed up biological processes. Enzymes exist in all of nature – in microorganisms, plants, animals, as well as human bodies. Enzymes were introduced as ingredients in cleaning products in the early 1960s and are now widely used in laundry and dish detergents for their innovative and wide-ranging functionalities. Today, enzymes for detergents are produced by microorganisms via fermentation processes that use sugar and other agricultural by-products as feedstock.

Enzymes work in mild conditions, which means they can function at low temperatures and mild pH. They are only required at low concentrations in cleaning products to be effective. Enzymes are also readily biodegradable, resulting in no negative environmental impact.

Enzymes in cleaning

Enzymes are bio-catalysts that increase the rate of chemical reactions occurring in a variety of biological processes including digestion and growth. In the detergent industry, enzymes are used to provide a higher degree of stain removal, whiteness, fabric and colour care and overall cleaning performance. These ingredients are selected based on performance and the use that is required. Enzymes act like small selective scissors to break down stains into pieces.

Typically, enzymes are carefully optimised for their respective processes – such as the removal of a specific protein, starch or fat stain. Thus, each enzyme has specificity for one type of reaction and is used in the detergent targeted at removing that type of stain. By breaking stains down into smaller pieces, these highly targeted bio-catalysts help eliminate the stain by making it more easily removable by surfactants.

Specific enzymes target specific stains – for example:

• Proteases degrade protein-based stains such as grass or blood, giving clothes a clean appearance
• Amylases break down starch-based stains such as pasta or potatoes found on dishes
• Lipases target fat-based stains such as oil, which can contribute to increased appearance of staining after repeated washes

Enzymes enable significant environmental savings

Washing at low temperatures

At least 60 per cent of CO2 emissions from laundry and dish detergents come from the use phase - the energy consumed by the machine to heat the wash water is the largest environmental impact of washing across all life cycle stages. Washing at lower temperatures is therefore a pivotal driver to improve the overall sustainability profile of the washing process. Enzymes are vital contributors to this process, as they enable detergents to provide high cleaning performance at low temperatures.

Innovating compact products

The detergent industry globally has driven the compaction of detergent products as a strategic part of its sustainability strategy. Compaction refers to more concentrated liquid and powder products -this also reduces weight and packaging, and thus the overall environmental footprint. Compaction has been enabled through process technology innovation, eg, by employing new catalytically active performance ingredients such as enzymes, which have a high performance at low concentrations in the formula. Such innovation with enzymes has enabled significant environmental savings, while securing equivalent cleaning performance.

Alternative technology to replace phosphates

Phosphates and phosphonates were previously used in detergent products to remove soap scum and mineral deposits caused by hard water. In the US, phosphates were phased out of laundry detergents in the 1990s and in automatic dishwasher detergents in 2010 due to concerns of negative impacts on water systems.

The EU Detergents Regulation restricted the use of phosphates and phosphonates due to concerns with excess of algae growth in water environment. The restriction in Europe resulted in the equivalent reduction of some 55,000 tonnes of phosphorus per year across the EU. Enzymes provided the alternative technology to transition away from phosphates and phosphonates, and still maintain cleaning performance.

Use of enzymes in professional applications

• Enzymes are used to clean medical devices that cannot be cleaned in normal sterilisation machines, eg, endoscopes, loosening soils on delicate pieces of equipment where mechanical action is difficult
• Enzymes are necessary to remove blood stains during the laundry process particularly in hospital linens
• Commercial dishwashing machines recirculate wash water for the cleaning process. When the water reservoir becomes soiled from food residue, enzymes help break down the food waste, maintaining the sump water for longer, enabling great savings in resources
• Enzymes can be used to remove food soils from floors, especially in commercial kitchens, which can be destructive to grout in tiled floors, as well as a safety concern for staff in busy professional kitchens

Committed to safe and sustainable use

This industry has a long history of initiatives committed to safe and sustainable use. In this area, A.I.S.E. has developed multiple tools and guidance to support companies in the safe use of enzymes in cleaning products. Globally, A.I.S.E. works in collaboration with its counterparts in the US (HCPA and ACI), as well as with AMFEP, the European association of enzymes manufacturers.

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