If you ever need to know the price of washing powder, ask a cloth nappy user. They’ll immediately tell you where they can get it for 9p/wash, how much they’ve saved and how that means they can definitely justify buying that beautiful ruffled unicorn pretty* for their stash but please don’t tell their partner…
*It’s a fancy nappy. Don’t ask.
Seriously though, reusable nappies mean lots of washing and most of us are in this game to save cash and/or save the planet. If you can find an alternative to traditional detergent that costs less money and is gentler on the planet, then we will be interested. To this end the EcoEgg Laundry Egg has been an area of interest for us from the start. This plastic egg full of mysterious pellets costs less than £20 for 720 washes’ worth and claims to completely replace washing detergent. How is it supposed to work? Is there evidence to prove it works? Is it suitable for something really grotty like a pooey nappy? These are some of the questions we’ve been asking. Here’s a look at some of the evidence we’ve come across.
How does EcoEgg work?
On their website, where Eco Egg claim the laundry egg completely replaces laundry detergent, it says:
“The two types of mineral pellets inside the egg get to work, producing powerful – but natural – cleaning foam which powers through the fibres lifting off the dirt and grime.”
The ingredients are listed as >30% anionic surfactants and 15-30% non-ionic surfactant; superficially that looks similar to the main ingredients of many mainstream detergents but they seem to be quite different on closer inspection.
We invited EcoEgg to have a live Q&A with us. Amy Barron, marketing executive told us:
“The tourmaline pellets work by weakening the adhesive forces between the dirt and the fabric. The mineral pellets work by naturally ionizing the oxygen molecules in the water which then penetrate deep into the fabric lifting away the dirt and grime.”
The surfactants and other ingredients used in traditional detergents work by loosening dirt from fabric and keeping them mixed in the water, so that the dirt can be washed away and not be deposited back onto clothes. Amy said that that EcoEgg is able to prevent dirt being redeposited onto clothes, but couldn’t tell us how. She said:
I apologize, however I don’t know the details on how this works. I know that the laundry eggs has been formulated to keep the dirt in suspension, but I do not know the chemistry behind it. I’m afraid chemistry is not my strong point but I can always get back to you on this question.
However, she didn’t get back to us.
In a further Q&A we asked one of our expert advisers, Mark Smith of the RSC Water Science Forum, if he had any ideas how Eco Egg might achieve this. Mark said:
“As I understand they contain tourmaline, which produces a low surfactant concentration. There is mechanical action which may be enhanced by the egg, so that mechanical action may prevent soil being redeposited.”
Mark is saying that agitation, or bumping around, in the machine might help, and the egg being in there might increase or improve that agitation.
We also asked detergent scientist Jessica Liley for her opinion. She said:
“I am a little sceptical about Ecoeggs to be honest. The ingredients weaken the adhesive forces between dirt and fibres, and “activated” oxygen helps lift this dirt, but I think that scientifically, you need the chemical structure that a detergent has in order to solubilise hydrophobic dirt and lift it to wash it away, all the while keeping it in suspension in the wash and not allowing it to redeposit onto the clothes.”
Jessica is saying that EcoEgg’s ingredients can loosen and lift dirt from the fabric, but can’t make the dirt dissolve in the water. That means instead of washing away it can stick back on the clothes.
So EcoEgg uses a different method to traditional detergents to loosen dirt from clothes, but it’s unclear if and how it prevents dirt from washing back on to the clothes.
Is there any evidence to show that it works?
Amy assured us that the EcoEgg has undergone extensive lab testing and that it had been shown to work as well as a regular detergent. She said:
“The laundry egg is backed up by independent testing from Sartre*.”
“Our Laundry Eggs have been independently lab tested in 34 different countries and across a range of different fabrics over the last 6 years.”
(The laundry egg has been tested) “…for stains and bacteria, this has been independently tested to show that our Laundry Egg works just as well as usual detergent.”
*We haven’t heard of Sartre but we think Amy meant SATRA, an independent product testing company. We asked for a description of the tests but Amy said,
“For how the tests work, I know that they use an industry standard test that is used for all laundry detergents which we have passed, but unfortunately I don’t know the details of that test.”
We have since asked several times by telephone and in writing for the details of the testing methods and the results but since July 2015 when the Q&A took place EcoEgg has not provided them to us.
We have found one peer-reviewed study comparing a traditional detergent with various alternatives (soap nuts, laundry balls, washing pellets and laundry magnets) and also with plain water. Effectiveness at cleaning industry standard stain strips was examined. The laundry balls (no brand name was given) and other alternatives were found to be as effective as just water:
“The results showed that the cleaning effect of the four alternative laundry products was equal to that of water alone. Conventional compact detergent showed significantly better cleaning effect at all tested soil types. However, the results also indicate that water alone already has a substantial cleaning effect.”
Have we tested it?
Nappy Science Gang has tested the EcoEgg in its own detergent test against a range of supermarket and specialist nappy detergents and soap nuts (many more details here). The nappies were rated for look, feel and smell, and swabbed for bacteria after washing in the different agents. In the look, feel and smell tests Ecoegg was one of three who came fourth equal out of seven. It got most of its points on feel and did quite badly on smell. In the bacteria test it came fifth out of seven overall and had the highest numbers of pathogenic, infection causing bacteria surviving out of all the samples.
We made one further notable discovery in our stripwashing experiment. We selected five nappies which the owners felt needed stripwashed because they were smelly or failing to absorb liquid. We had them professionally analysed in a lab to see what if anything was hiding in the fabric. We didn’t reveal the history of the nappies to the lab. None of the nappies had a build-up of detergent (long suspected in the cloth community to be the cause of poorly performing nappies) but they all had a lot of bacteria living on them. One nappy which seemed to be repelling liquid instead of absorbing it had the most bacteria of all, around ten times that of its nearest neighbour. This nappy turned out to have been washed routinely with an Eco Egg.
So are EcoEggs all they’re cracked up to be?
Looking at this available evidence we cannot be convinced that laundry ball products are as effective as regular detergents. With Eco Egg we have a plausible explanation of how it can loosen and lift dirt, though we don’t know how well. We have no good explanation of how it can make the dirt dissolve and wash away. We would be concerned that EcoEgg may not remove sufficient bacteria to keep nappies in good working order.
What do you think about EcoEgg’s claims? You can join the Nappy Science Gang debate on our Facebook page.