Why Everything is Dirtier

Von Mises Institute I'm old enough to have a vague memory of clothes so white that they were called bright. This happened despite the absence of additives — the ridiculous varieties of sprays and bottles and packets that festoon our cabinets today and that we throw into the wash to try to boost the cleaning power of our pathetic machines and increasingly useless laundry soap.

Then, the other night, I experienced an amazing blast from the past. I added a quarter cup of trisodium phosphate (TSP) and otherwise "treated" nothing. The results were nothing short of mind-boggling. Everything was clean — clean in a way that I recall from childhood.

Next came my confrontation with the local dry cleaner, which I've used for years. I explained what happened and how puzzling it is that by using TSP I was able to clean my clothes more thoroughly and perfectly than his commercial service.

He was not shocked. He completely agreed, though sheepishly.

I pointed out that TSP, which is a natural element, is amazing not because it cleans — it needs soap to do its thing — but rather because it rinses, whooshing away all dirt, oil, stains, as well as all leftover detergent. Bleach whitens but it ruins fabrics, and that's not good. What is needed is a good rinsing agent that leaves clothes not only perfectly clean but also smelling fantastic. TSP does it, and that's why it has long been an essential ingredient in laundry soap.

Once again, he agreed.

Does he use it? No. And why not?

It is not "commercially viable," he said.

How can this be? It is not expensive. It is freely available at the hardware store in the paint section. If something works, the laundry service pleases its customers more. That means more business and higher profits. Isn't the goal to clean clothes well and do a good job for customers?

Yes, true, he said, but, again, TSP is not "commercially viable." He politely deferred all further questions to the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute, whose website provides no information at all to nonmembers. However, the Laundry Institute did answer my email:

It is true that trisodium phosphate produces cleaner laundry.