What do you know about those plastic ion laundry balls that supposedly replace detergent?

–RosenClan, via AOL

Here’s what I know:

(1) People are charging as much as $75 for a set of little gizmos that look like they came as a prize in a Happy Meal.

(2) Fifty bucks a set is more typical, but even that has to be an outrageous markup inasmuch as there’s an outfit in Hong Kong that will sell them to you for $3.60 a pair. (Minor drawback: you have to go to Hong Kong to pick them up.)

(3) If you believe Consumer Reports, even $3.60 is a rip because you can get equally good results tossing your kid’s Skoosh ball in the washing machine; i.e., none.

Taking all this into consideration, I figure laundry balls aren’t just the name of the product, they’re what you need to sell it.

But we believe in fairness around here. So I’ll say this: we tested a set of laundry thingies (laundry disks rather than laundry balls, actually, but what’s the diff?), with unexpected results. But more about that in a sec.

Laundry balls and such are sold mostly via direct marketing–catalog firms, outfits like Amway, and “multilevel marketing” concerns. An MLM is basically a network of individuals who sell a product and at the same time try to recruit other sellers, in whose profits they’ll share. I’m not saying every MLM is a racket–there are probably people who thought their time-share condos were a good deal, too–but MLMs do seem to hawk more than their share of junk.

Laundry balls/disks allegedly eliminate or greatly reduce the need for conventional laundry detergents. You get different stories about how they work, including a lot of hokum about “structured water” and “nanotricity” and whatnot, none of which makes much sense. The most coherent account comes from a catalog firm called Real Goods:

“1. Metallic elements (including copper and silver) in the activated ceramics [inside the device] release electrons which in turn produce ionized oxygen. This form of oxygen is a totally natural cleanser which breaks up dirt and organic compounds.”

Sure, it’s possible, says the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board. A metal (although probably not copper) could produce a peroxide, a type of bleach. But probably not enough to accomplish anything.

“2. The activated ceramics also emit ‘far infrared electromagnetic waves’ which cause water molecule clusters to disassociate, allowing much smaller individual water molecules to penetrate into the innermost part of the fabric and remove dirt.

SDSAB: All objects at room temp emit “far infrared”; this is known as heat energy. No appreciable effect on water molecules.

“3. When water contacts the activated ceramics, an abundance of OH ions is produced, reducing the surface tension of the water and greatly increasing its penetrating power. Ordinary detergents make use of this same principle, but do so by using harsh chemicals.”

SDSAB: Possibly OH ions, also known as hydroxide, could be created in this way, though not in large quantity. These would raise the water’s pH. Substantially the same thing happens with lye soap and sodium hydroxide, the main component of Drano. What was that about no harsh chemicals?

But now to the practical test, which was conducted by my assistant Jane. (You may think it sexist that she got stuck doing the laundry, but she volunteered.) She stained various items of clothing with ketchup, chocolate, ink, grass, and “some of the purple dye I use for my hair.” That Jane, you gotta love her. She washed three batches, one with three laundry disks from Real Goods, one with Tide, one with plain water. As advised by the product literature, she used a prewash stain treatment on all the batches. Result: little difference among the three except that the disks were better at getting rid of the grass stain. “Hmm,” said Jane.

Round two. The disks got the wash “a tad” cleaner. Hmm2.

OK, the slightly better showing by the disks may be a fluke. Or the result of the prewash. Other investigations (e.g., the aforementioned Consumer Reports test, published in the February 1995 issue) found no difference. The real surprise is that Tide didn’t perform much better than plain water. I’m not saying you need laundry balls or disks. But the soap makers’ dirty little secret, you should pardon the expression, is that you might not need conventional detergent either.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.