Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How Does Temperature Affect the Cleaning Ability of Soap?

James from Altoona, PA, was helping his older brother wash some dishes in their kitchen sink recently, and he noticed that the dish detergent seemed to rinse off the dishes better with cold water than with hot water. He also observed that the hot water helped make the dish detergent foam more (i.e., produce more soap suds). He wrote in asking: how does the temperature of water affect the cleaning ability of soap? The use of soaps and detergents is part of everyday life (at least it should be!) so let's first discuss what soap is and how it works. You have probably heard the terms soap and detergent used to describe the various products that are used to clean clothes, dishes, hands, cars, or pretty much anything that needs cleaning. While they are very similar, they are slightly different. A detergent is a substance that cleans dirty or soiled surfaces. It is usually made from synthetic ingredients, which means the ingredients are not naturally occurring and are maufactured from different chemicals. Soap is a type of detergent and is usually produced from natural ingredients. Just from looking around your home, you probably have noticed that soaps and detergents are produced in many different physical forms - for example, there are bars, flakes, pellets, liquids and even tablets! Detergents and soaps contain a basic cleaning agent called a surfactant, which stands for surface active agent. Surfactants consist of molecules that attach themselves to the dirt particles of the dirty material that is being cleaned. The dirt particles are pulled out of the dirty material and are then held in the wash water until they are rinsed away. Most detergents contain a synthetic surfactant in addition to other chemicals that are added to improve the detergent's cleaning ability. Other ingredients that are added to detergents include perfumes, coloring agents and germ-killing or antibacterial agents. When it comes to temperature, hot or cold water is acceptable when cleaning with soap. The most important part of cleaning is using the soap or detergent! You need something that will pull the dirt particles from the dirty areas. Water alone will work OK, but water with soap will work even better.

Little Lion Experiment:

Like James above, you may notice that more soap suds are produced when using hot water. The reasoning for this begins with the fact that warmer water evaporates faster than cold water (the warmer water changes from a liquid to a gas faster than cold water). Soap suds or bubbles are formed more easily when the warmer water is evaporating. Colder water evaporates slower so it is harder to make soap suds. With this information, do you think bubbles will last longer in hot or cold water? This experiment will help you determine the answer!

Items Needed

  • Two large bowls (or tubs)
  • Rubber gloves
  • Tablespoon measuring spoon
  • Access to cold and hot water (from your faucet is OK)
  • Stop watch
  • Some type of soap (you can use dish detergent, laundry detergent, hand soap, etc.)


  1. Fill one bowl with warm water and the other bowl with cold water.
  2. With the gloves on, add one tablespoon of your soap to each bowl.
  3. Use the tablespoon to mix the soap into each bowl for 30 seconds.
  4. After mixing, start the stop watch and observe how long the bubbles remain in each bowl. Did the bubbles last longer in the warmer water or the cold water? Why do you think this is so? With the faster evaporation of the warm water, the bubbles may form more quickly than the cold water but that also means that they will disappear sooner too. The slower evaporation of water means that the bubbles may take longer to form but they will also last longer once formed.