The Philosophy of “Gentle Chemistry”
Gentle Chemistry: A review of why we established Tri Nature and what sets us apart from the mainstream by Brian McLean, Tri Nature Director and research chemist.
It is timely to review our history: many newer distributors, customers and members are only aware of today’s Tri Nature and may benefit from hearing the “Tri Nature story: the beginning to the present day”. The article is based around the most frequently asked questions and responds to the perennial question “what makes Tri Nature different from the rest ?” It features in part in the February issue of The Natural Health and Vegetarian Society (NHVS) Magazine.
A brief history…
Hammersley Industries, Tri Nature’s parent company, was founded in 1972. At that time I had been in the chemical
industry for 12 years and had been involved in the manufacture of high quality, chemical specialty products with a large multi -national corporation. Our new company grew well, in industrial and commercial sectors, through the 1970s . Its success was based on providing highly efficient products and personal attention to the individual needs of our customers. It was this personal attention that awakened us to the notion that people in industry were not being served well.
This was a period when ‘sledge-hammer’ chemistry was practised by many companies and seemed to be the easiest
way to tackle industrial cleaning and maintenance issues. Developing products using sledge-hammer philosophy does not take a lot of talent and the use of strong caustic alkalies, strong mineral acids or powerful chlorinated
hydrocarbon solvents was common.
We began to understand that industry had little choice in what they used, as most chemical suppliers just offered
more of the same. We also considered that, because we were a small company and closely involved with our customers, maybe we were in a good position to provide alternatives. Developing products ‘with a difference’ was the germination of the ‘gentle chemistry’ philosophy.
An example of our concerns in the industrial arena was the use of chlorinated hydrocarbons in electrical solvents . Chlorinated hydrocarbons are superb de-greasing solvents. They were and still are used for the cleaning of electric motors and small parts. They are very strong solvents and have very low boiling points, which means they evaporate quickly and leave no residue. They also have the advantage(for electrical work) of being non-conductive and non-flammable.
Are they the perfect solvents? Yes indeed – as long as the safety of the people handling or using them and the
safety of the earth’s atmosphere is disregarded! The toxicity of chlorinated hydrocarbons ranges from ‘quite
concerning’ to ‘downright scary’! They evaporate quickly and the vapours are absorbed readily through the skin or
by inhal ation. They reside and build up in fatty tissues. They are nervous system depressants and can damage the
liver and kidneys. Back in the 70s and 80s, many were also ozone layer depleters.
The most toxic types of the ozone depleters have since been banned – but many other toxic CHCs reman in popular use throughout a broad spectrum of industry – one of the most concerning circumstances being the extensive use of large quantities of perchloroethylene (tetrachloroethylene) in commercial dry cleaning operations. This is one of the most toxic CFCs still readily available. New, liquefied carbon dioxide technology may one day make the use of perchloroethylene obsolete – but, until then, I urge you to air all drycleaned items thoroughly before bringing them into your home.
Hammersley was the first chemical company in Australia to formulate away from chlorinated hydrocarbons in
industrial electrical solvents – and first to develop solvent-free degreasers, plus an entirely solvent -free industrial hand cleaner. Hammersley continues to provide safer industrial technologies to industrial and commercial accounts.
The Phosphate dilemma…
In the more general arena, we had become aware, through our investigations of international trends, of the increasing number of countries desperate to arrest a growing eutrophication problem in their inland water systems and their consequent legislation against the use of phosphates in laundry powders.
A laundry powder’s efficiency has always been strongly dependent on its phosphate content , with normal supermarket brands generally containing 30-40% of a phosphate compound. Sodium tripolyphosphate, the main phosphate used, i s an import ant part of the building system of all regular laundry powders. Cost effective and very hard to replace, it is non-toxic and highly efficient in providing not only gentle alkalinity, but water softening, soil suspension, anti-redeposition and free rinsing qualities.
The only unfortunate feature of this ingredient type is that it provides phosphorus as a nutrient to the effluent water. This nutrient effluent remains unchanged through all wastewater treatment processes and acts as a fertiliser for the suffocating growth of weed and algae in our water systems (the process called eutrophication). Laundry powders share responsibility with automatic dishwashing powders for being the greatest household contributors of phosphate nutrients to our waterways.
We were aware of the growing general alarm at the deteriorating health of Australia’s inland water systems and increasingly concerned about the very visible effects of the polluting phosphates and nitrates in our local,
Hunter region waterways. These observations led us to believe that it was highly likely the Australian government would also legislate against the use of phosphates in laundry detergents.
The greatest challenge…
Because of our personal concerns about the environment and the desire to preempt legislation that we believed was inevitable, we set about the task of developing a high-quality, phosphate-free laundry powder. This was the most difficult task we had ever undertaken. European and American technologies revolved around the use of zeolites
(insoluble alumino-silicate compounds that caused so many problems in some countries that legislation banning phosphates was repealed) or nitrogen compounds, a farcical replacement of one pollutant nutrient with another.
These technologies produced powders that were less efficient and more expensive than their phosphated predecessors.
We had to do much better than had previously been done anywhere in the world. The research took a number of years , many frustrations and substantial funding, but resulted in our gentle and highly effective Alpha Plus Laundry Concentrate powder. Besides its ‘phosphate free’ status and proven efficiency, our laundry powder also offers many other benefits – both environmental and personal:
- It contains two very gentle surfactants , alpha olefin sulphonate and alkylpolyglucoside, which cause no skin irritations. (Sodium dodecylbenzene sulphonate, alcohol ethoxylates and sodium lauryl sulphate are most often used in ordinary powders and can cause irritations. )
- It is concentrated and contains none of the useless sodium sulphate or sodium chloride that bulks out and extends normal powders (these and other fillers increase salinity in effluent , make the product less acceptable for grey-water uses and increase the usage rate needed for the wash).
- It is extremely free rinsing (the addition of fillers to the chemical load of the wash makes it more difficult to ensure free rinsing. Consequently, skin irritation from the washed garments is more likely).
- It is very gentle and is suitable for all washable fabrics.
As it transpired, the Australian government did not legislate against phosphate/nitrate laundry detergents. The status quo was maintained, along with the problem of eutrophication. It would be appropriate to mention at this point that our more recent Alpha Plus liquid products – Laundry Liquid and Gentle Wash – have negligible salt content and, being liquids, are also free of phosphates and nitrates.
For suburban grey-water gardening and the inevitable, future need to recycle wastewater on a grand scale, Peter Shepherd-Wilson of Waterwise Systems, a grey-water system manufacturer in Victoria, has declared that they are probably the best laundry products available in Australia. The ramifications of high salt levels in wastewater are that salts destroy garden soil and that large-scale desalination is, currently at any rate, a very expensive process.
Peter is very concerned about the high salt counts recorded at Melbourne’s wastewater treatment plants. Both he and the plant engineers estimate that, at the Werribee plant , where a lot of industrial effluent is treated, 10 percent of the salinity is attributable to household products.
At the Carrum Downs plant , which receives far less industrial waste, they estimate that 30- 50 percent of the salt count is caused by household products, mainly laundry powders. The remainder would come from industry and the fertilisers used in agriculture, but this high household percentage provides an indication of just how much difference could be made by using truly environmentally responsible household products.
The birth of Tri Nature…
Back to the 1980s. Our company now had this ground-breaking, fantastically gentle, effective and economical powder to make available to the laundries of Australia. However, it was a product with qualities and features which needed to be explained – and, through our work with the laundry powder and other development projects, we also had many more ideas for equally gentle and superior household products ‘waiting in the wings’. This was the genesis of Tri Nature.
A network of independent distributors and specialist retail outlets was developed, so that the benefits and advantages of our products could be fully explained to customers and users. In October 1989, Tri Nature was officially launched, with a ‘ small footprint ‘ philosophy. A philosophy of harmlessness to humans , flora, fauna, ecology and environment, and a passion to replace harsh and aggressive chemical products, petroleum solvents, phosphates and other environmental pollutants with gentle, naturally based, high performance products. A philosophy of ‘gentle chemistry’ .
Since then, Tri Nature has extended from the 13 original products to a full range of household specialty and personal care products. Sometimes the additions to our range have been slow to emerge, because a lot of our work is not easy. Each product must be the very gentlest and the very best available. Each product must provide real advantages, in usage, safety and environmental terms.
Law and folklore…
In the past few decades, Australian legislation covering poisons, dangerous goods and health and safety issues has gone a long way in making the chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis reasonably safe. While care still needs to be taken when choosing and using household cleaning products, they are much better controlled than in 1989 when Tri Nature began.
There is , however, considerable use of deplorable scaremongering and misinformation tactics used by some
specialist manufacturers who consider it necessary to market their products by convincing people that using anything else may jeopardise the health and safety of themselves and their family. This is dishonest and brings no honour to our profession.
The Tri Nature difference…
So, if things aren’t as bad as they were, what now gives Tri Nature the edge? What is it today that sets Tri Nature apart and why do so many users report so many beneficial results since switching from supermarket to Tri
I believe that the ‘Tri Nature’ difference is a result of the difference between Tri Nature’s philosophy and that of the companies which develop products for sale through supermarkets. If we analyse the products available to us on the supermarket shelves, we find that, despite the advertising hype, supermarket cleaning products are all very similar to each other. They are all pared down to the lowest common denominator in order to achieve the lowest possible price.
We normally don’t go supermarket shopping for something of special quality. If we are after a special item, we go to a specialist shop. In the area of household chemicals and personal care, the lowest common denominator approach means manufacturing a barely workable, often irritating product for the lowest possible cost…in stark contrast to Tri Nature’s ‘best and gentlest’ approach.
Let me take just one simple example of the most used household liquid product – dishwashing detergent: All supermarket dishwashing liquids are based on sodium dodecylbenzene sulphonate. This detergent agent, manufactured from an aromatic petroleum solvent (dodecyl benzene), offers good foam and grease-cutting properties, but is very harsh on the skin and leads regularly to irritation and redness of users’ hands.
These formula types have changed very little since the advent of biodegradability legislation in the 1970s, and while they are not inherently dangerous, little consideration if any is given to making the product gentler or to creating the most efficient product possible. Cost is the overriding factor. Sodium dodecylbenzene sulphonate is easily thickened with common salt. Products in the cheaper price brackets, with very low active contents, are made to look more concentrated by this method.
Tri Nature uses a very different approach: Chamomile, our liquid dishwashing product, is highly concentrated and built from very gentle, cosmetic grade materials. All our surfactants are vegetable based, very readily biodegradable and more usually found in high quality shampoo type products. Only 4 ml of Chamomile is needed to
provide excellent results, and reusable pumps are available to eliminate wastage.
It is a very versatile product that can be used for many light-duty jobs around the home, and, with up to 250 washes in each one-litre bottle, is extremely economical. We are continually working on improvements, and our work with alkyl glucoside technology is currently being used to create an even gentler and more efficient Chamomile product.
…And other non-toxic products
Chamomile is just one of the products in the T ri Nature range demonstrating that quality, gentleness and economy can exist in the one package. It is important to understand that the best cost-efficiency level for any product type is never found in the cheapest possible product.
Similar comparisons can be drawn with all of the relatively safe supermarket product types.
The real dangers…
At Tri Nature we have had many people speak to us of the headaches and dizziness they experience when using some leading brand products for general cleaning around the home and especially in confined spaces like shower and toilet areas.
Let me indicate a few freely available household chemical types that pose a real threat to health and safety in the home, and for which Tri Nature offers much gentler and safer alternatives.
The active ingredient in liquid bleach is sodium hypochlorite, which is freely available in supermarkets in concentrations from three to six percent. These products are stabilised with caustic soda and can have pH levels over 12.5 (highly alkaline). A number of these product types are thickened and used on the vertical surfaces of showers and toilet bowls.
Sodium hypochlorite is a potent oxidising agent, which accounts for its bleaching effects, destruction of body fat and soap scum in showers or baths and its corrosiveness to human tissue. Concentrated solutions can produce severe tissue injury. Skin or eye exposure produces local burning and irritation and can cause serious corneal damage.
Inhaling sodium hypochlorite fumes may lead to sore throat, cough, wheezing, shortness of breath and pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs). Ingestion of household bleach can cause oral, oesophageal and gastric burns, as well as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain.
Toilet bowl cleaners often contain various concentrations of corrosive agents, including sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, oxalic acid or sodium bisulphate. Symptoms following exposure to any of them will depend on the route, concentration and duration of contact.
Acids directly damage the surface layers of tissues. Effects on the skin can range from reddening and swelling to blister formation and overt skin destruction. Eye exposure may result in burning, pain, redness and corneal damage.
Inhaling acid fumes can cause sore throat, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Severe exposure can cause
pulmonary oedema (although this is not likely with most household cleaning products). Ingestion can lead to severe
oral, oesophageal and gastric burns, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
Alkaline cleaners and ammoniated products
One nationally advertised product for shower cleaning is an alkaline liquid with strong, penetrating and choking volatility when sprayed. Products of this type contain volatile organic compounds that act as solvents for soap scum and greasy soils. They are inhaled in mist form when sprayed and can easily irritate the nose, mouth, throat and chest. More severe exposure can cause hoarseness, coughing and difficulty in breathing.
Ammonium hydroxide is another caustic ingredient found at levels between four and six percent in common ammoniated cleaners. It is highly volatile and gives off choking fumes with similar detrimental effects to other alkalies.
Skin contact with alkaline solutions can produce a soapy feel because of their ability to solubilise skin fats and proteins. They can produce severe pain, blister formation and tissue destruction. Eye exposure may bring burning, pain, redness and severe corneal injury. Ingestion can lead to severe oral, oesophageal and/or gastric burns, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
While casual exposure to any of these products can be dangerous, other commonly used cleaning products that contain low concentrations of bleach, corrosives or caustic substances corrosives or caustic substances are mostly not likely to be serious health hazards, if used according to instructions.
However, exposure to the toxic effects of a combination of them can be deadly. In an attempt to make cleaning products work better and faster, people have been known to mix multiple cleaning agents. This is an extremely dangerous activity, as indiscriminate mixing of products can lead to the release of toxic chlorine or chloramine gases.
Mixing bleach with acidic, ammonium, or nitrogen-containing products can be fatal and everyone should be discouraged from mixing any cleaning products.
Some specific alternatives…
Tri Nature’s approach to cleaning in shower and toilet areas is much gentler on both the person cleaning and the
environment. One of two products is generally recommended:
Optimate is a mildly-alkaline cleaner built around several highly efficient vegetable-based detergent agents. It contains a dual solvent system derived from orange oil and sugar. This three faceted attack (of mild alkalinity,
efficient detergency and natural-based solvency) deals with the oily and proteinaceous soils of the shower and bath areas easily – and safely.
Excel is a mildly acidic cleaner that is highly effective and safe to use. Excel is based on citric acid that is potentiated (or activated) with a small amount of acetic acid. Both are organic acids derived from sugar and both are readily biodegradable. The formula also includes efficient, vegetable-based surfactants and a sugar-based solvent. The organic nature of Excel has a strong affinity and solubilising action on soap scum and body fats. The product is also efficient in the removal and prevention of water staining in toilet bowls and basins.
Automatic dishwashing powders present another potential household hazard. Their high alkalinity and chlorine content has proven to be a dangerous combination, as many reported domestic accidents have attested.
Tri Nature’s alternative, Citrus Dishwashing Concentrate, is the greatest safety breakthrough ever within our range of household products. With the lowest pH of any powdered dishwashing product, it contains none of the caustic, alkaline or chlorinated compounds that have caused so much harm to children around the world.
A child who breaks through all the household safety precautions to get to it will survive the experience without sustaining permanent, irrevocable harm to the digestive tract or internal organs, which would surely be the result of
ingesting other powdered dishwashing products on the market.
The health and safety advantages of our other products over their supermarket counterparts are not so extreme. Nevertheless, each and every product in the Tri Nature range is very efficient and exceptionally gentle to the user and the environment.
This is Tri Nature’s philosophy – the philosophy of gentle chemistry.
Note from co-author Janet Saxton, of Victoria:
Brian McLean has written several articles for the New Vegetarian and Natural Health magazine. As an industrial and manufacturing chemist, having majored in organic chemistry, the publishers feel that he has a vast background and experience upon which to draw when answering general questions on potential safety issues surrounding the cleaning products present in today’s marketplace.
Brian’s previous articles are presented in NVNH on page 42 of the following issues – Winter 2003, Spring 2003 and
Summer 2003/4. Each of these issues is still in stock in the NHS Bookshop.
Acknowledgement from Brian McLean and Tracey Freinberger:
Thank you, Janet Saxton, for your tireless efforts to bring truth and enlightenment on issues such as these to the readers of NVNH – and your assistance with both subject matter and content.