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How Green is your Detergent?

Reprinted with permission from VOICE

The Voluntary Organisation in the Interest of Consumers Education (VOICE) recently completed a Detergent Test Programme for 14 Indian brands, with the aim of helping the Indian consumer pick the product they need at a price they can afford. The testing process also included parameters for eco-friendliness, based on biodegradibility and phosphate content. Give below are a summary of their findings.

Detergents, used by almost every urban household, have the distinction of being one of the mostsuccessful income generating products for the companies who manufacture them. Their penetration into rural areas is also increasing at an accelerated pace.

The Indian consumer organisation, VOICE, conducted a nation-wide survey on leading brands, ranging in price from Rs 16/kg to Rs 130/kg, and followed it up by testing 14 of them. The tests conducted included parameters for performance and eco-friendliness.

Performance tests:

Relative detergency (ability to isolate dirt and soil from clothes)
Soil redeposition (ability to prevent soil and dirt from re-depositing onto the fabric)
Alkalinity (alkalines added to decompose acid constituents of dirt and prevent washing machine corrosion)
Chemical damage to fibre during washing (damage from surfactants, bleaching agents)
Colour fading (levels of additives such as bleaching agents, etc.)

Eco-friendly tests:

Biodegradability (ability to decompose easily into CO2 by bacteria present in soil)
Phosphate-free (Phosphates, added as builders to remove hardness
of water, can by their high nutrient value, cause eutrophication in water bodies)

Brands Tested
Brand Name
Maximum Retail Price (per kg)
as of September 1998 as of April 2001
Surf Excel
Ariel with Microshine
Henko Stain Champion
Surf with Wash Boosters
Rin Power White
Wheel Lemon Power
Ariel Supersoaker
Tata Shudh
Fena Super Power
Super Nirma
Hipolin Extra Power
Nirma Washing Powder
*Prices of 'Ariel Power Compact',
** Price of 'Rin Power Sakti'
# Price of 'Ariel Gain'
## Hipolin & T-series are not available in major markets of Delhi
Weightage Scheme
Comparative Testing of Detergent Powders
Test Parameters
Relative detergency
Damage to fibre
Colour fading
Redeposition index
Informative labelling

Composition of synthetic detergent powders:
Synthetic detergent powders consist of surface-active agents, builders and fillers. In addition, they have additives like anti-deposition agents, optical brighteners (whitening agents), blueing agents, bleaching agents, foam regulators, organic sequestering agents, enzymes, perfumes, substances to regulate density and assure crispness of the material.

Summary of the test results

Performance tests:

Relative detergency: Not surprisingly, the test results showed that the more expensive brands were better at isolating dirt from clothes. Some of the cheaper brands performed poorly in this regard. Click here for the chart.

Soil Redeposition:
To control the tendency of soil and dirt to redeposit on the fabric, various anti-deposition agents are added to detergents. The efficacy of these agents is ascertained by calculating the percentage reflectance of soil during the washing process. The following brands proved very good at preventing redeposition: Ariel Microshine, Henko Stain Champion, Rin Power White and Nirma. Click here for the chart.

Alkalinity: Alkalines like Sodium Carbonate (soda ash) and Sodium Borate are commonly added to detergents to neutralise the acid constituents of dirt and soil, and promote better cleaning. Anti-corrosive agents, like Sodium Silicate, are sometimes added to prevent washing machine corrosion. If the volume of alkalines added is above a certain limit (10 ml.), it may harm clothes by resulting in colour fading. In seven out of 14 brands tested, it was ABOVE the desirable limit. Click here for the chart.

Chemical damage to fibre during washing and Colour fading: Chemical substances in all of the 14 brands tested were found to be harmless to cloth fibre. No colour fading was witnessed. 10 of the 14 brands reached the 'Very Good' mark in this test parameter.

Eco-friendly tests:
All over the world, eco-criteria form an important part of product testing as a way to ensure sustainable consumption for products like detergents. The fast diminishing resources of earth make sustainability the watchword in ascertaining the quality of consumer products.

Biodegradibility: The first criterion, and one that environmentalists consider the most important, to ascertain eco-friendliness of any detergent, is the biodegradability of its ingredients. Biodegradability is the ability of a substance to be readily broken down into carbon dioxide, by bacteria present in the soil. According to India Standard (IS:13933 - 1995), the material giving a result of greater than 60 percent of field carbon dioxide within 28 days is regarded as readily biodegradable. By this standard, all the detergent powders tested were "Readily and Ultimately Biodegradable."

Click to see a larger image
Phosphate, the culprit: Phosphates are added to detergents as builders, for removing the hardness of water. They are easily assimilated by soil microorganisms and are hence largely biodegradable. But when discharged into water bodies, such as lakes or streams, they act as a nutrient for blue-green algae, which can grow to large enough levels to clog rivers, restrict light and oxygen availability to other plant and aquatic life, in a process known as "eutrophication." They can also make the water toxic for humans. They are hence, not considered eco-friendly, and are restricted by law in some countries.

Of the detergents tested, Henko Stain Champion, Rin Power White, Tata Shudh, Nirma, Wheel, Fena, T-Series, Hippolin and 555 were found to have the lowest phosphate content. (Note: Greater score on the chart indicates lower phosphate content)

Labelling Standards for Detergents


According to IS 4955 published by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), each packet of detergent powders shall be securely closed and marked with the following information:

a) Name and grade of material

b) Indication of the source of manufacture

c) Net mass of the material

d) Batch no. or code no. in lot or otherwise

e) Month and year of manufacture

f) Caution: Detergent solutions can be skin irritants. Avoid prolonged contact. Rinse garments and hands thoroughly.

g) The following critical ingredients in descending order of quantity, percent by mass:

1)Active ingredients
2) Builders
3) Soda Ash
4) Filters
5) Enzymes: if any

Informative labelling: Among the detergents tested, Tata Shudh alone complies with BIS standards for detergent labelling. It lists percentage of ingredients as required by BIS guidelines.


BIS requirements for Ecomark

The Indian Eco-labelling scheme refers to standards of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) pertaining to quality, safety and performance. BIS lays a set of general and specific requirements for the Ecomark.

According to Sec., the product shall conform to the requirements of quality, safety and performance prescribed by BIS.

As per Sec., the manufacturer shall produce to BIS, environmental consent clearance from the concerned State Pollution Control Board.

List of critical ingredients also shall be marked on the label for Ecomark.

The material shall pass the test then evaluated for skin irritant potential and skin sensitisation potential.

Sec. No. says that the material shall not contain any phosphate and suggests using any environment-friendly substance in sufficient quantity to ensure similar performance of the product as compared to phosphates.

Sec. No. suggests that the surfactants issued in the manufacture of household laundry detergent powders shall be readily biodegradable.

Sec. No. 6.1.2 for Ecomark, says that the product shall be packed in packages which are made from recyclable/renewable or biodegradable materials.

Making India Green Votes for the Greenest Ones!
From the Comparative tests, it looks like the winners are Henko Stain Champion and Tata Shudh. As compared with premium brands like Surf Excel and Ariel Microshine which gave the best performance, but have a high phosphate content, both Henko Stain Champion and Tata Shudh had a low phosphate content and hence combine relatively good performance with economy and eco-friendliness. If they suit your budget, they would be the choice of green consumers. They certainly get our vote.


Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of detergents with a value of billions of rupees are used annually in India. The production, use and disposal of such a large amount of chemicals is bound to have an adverse impact on the environment. Some of these impacts include pollution of water sources, depletion of natural resources, concentration of heavy metals, the localised effects of chemical ingredients on biodiversity and human life, toxicity to animals and increasing amounts of packaging waste.

The detergent market, dominated as it is by big brands like Proctor and Gamble and Lakes brothers (who between them, control almost 90% of the sales in urban areas), subverts information vital for environmental protection, misguides the consumer about the real choices available in the market, and uses manipulative marketing strategies that push out smaller and perhaps less polluting detergents.

But Indian consumers have proved extremely shrewd, cost-conscious and adaptable, and have always mixed and matched market products according to their individual needs. They generally soak highly soiled or stained clothes in detergent overnight, and use coarser detergents to wash cleaning cloths. They circumvent water shortages by alternating machine wash with hand wash. In the absence of superior-quality detergents for finer clothing, the traditional alternative, reetha, is often used. In fact, reetha is so fine a washing agent and also eco-friendly, that Indian women have traditionally used it as a herbal shampoo as well.

Even the" greenest" detergent will have some impact on the environment. So detergent use can never be a totally non-polluting activity. However, concerned and informed consumers can minimise the impact of their use of detergents on the environment. The basic problem relates to the quantity collectively used by consumers.

Once used, detergents find their way into water bodies, where they can cause problems if they persist for too long, leading to accumulation of potentially toxic or otherwise harmful substances. The manufacture, distribution, use and disposal of detergents (and their packaging materials) are key points at which environmental impact may occur. The least polluting - or "greenest" - detergent would minimise and/or remove the most wasteful processes and toxic ingredients throughout its lifecycle.

A "green" detergent should ideally contain only the lowest required quantity of essential ingredients. Non-essential additives, like perfume, colour and brightening agents should be omitted. Ingredients like bleach add to the environmental burden and should be used sparingly, if at all. The ingredients should be non-toxic, readily biodegradable and be easily eliminated by sewage treatment. Packaging should be kept to a minimum, and should ideally consist of recycled content, recyclable or biodegradable materials. Green detergents would also provide complete information on the label, that would help consumers make an informed choice.

This article was written and compiled by the VOICE Editorial and Technical Team , for the March-April 2001 issue of CONSUMER VOICE, the magazine of the consumer organisation, Voluntary Organisation in the Interest of Consumers Education (VOICE).

For more information, contact:
VOICE, F-71, Lajpat Nagar-II, New Delhi - 110 024, India
Tel: 011-6918969, 6315375 Fax: 011-4620455

The VOICE Detergent Test Programme was supported by the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests and Consumenten Bond - Holland.

Download this article as a pdf file (

Detergents under scrutiny
The virtually unregulated use of pollutant chemicals in the Indian detergent industry is a situation that needs to be quickly reversed, says Toxics Link.

Ecolabelling and Green Rating resources
Download an E-book on the Ecomark Scheme of India
Read an interview on the Ecomark scheme, with consumer activist, Dr. N.G.Wagle

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