A company claims that if you place their sealed liquid-filled plastic ball into your washing machine, you can eliminate the need for caustic detergents, improving the ecology and saving the planet. The claim is that this ball changes the ionic charge of the water and “magically releases” the dirt from your clothing. Is it possible to use ions to clean as well or better than detergent? — RO, Garden City, MI
I’m afraid that this claim is nonsense and, like the stone in “stone soup,” the ball does nothing at all. The old-time medicine show didn’t really disappear, it just evolved into a more modern form. Since the ball doesn’t add or remove chemicals from the water, it can’t alter the numbers of neutral and ionic particles in the water. But ions have very little to do with how water cleans clothes anyway. Water is already a wonderful solvent for salts and sugars, so you can clean many soils from your clothes with just water alone. But water is a poor solvent for oils and fats because oil and fat molecules don’t bind well to water molecules. That’s where detergents come into play—they form shells called micelles around the oil and fat molecules and render those molecules soluble in water. Without detergents, you’ll have trouble cleaning oils and fats from your clothes. Since oils and fats aren’t affected one way or the other by ions, even the ball’s claimed activity won’t help them to dissolve in the water.