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A laundry ball or washing ball is a product that is promoted as a substitute for laundry detergent. Producers of laundry balls often make pseudoscientific claims about how these balls work and exaggerate the extent of their benefits.
While many individuals report that these balls work, most test results show them to be similar to or less effective than washing in water without any detergent. Most of the effect can be attributed to the mechanical effect of the ball or to using hot water instead of cold water. One of the tests comparing washing with water alone, laundry balls and a branded washing powder showed little difference in effectiveness between the three, and concluded "I'm not saying you need laundry balls or disks. But the soap makers' dirty little secret... Is that you might not need conventional detergent either."
The Federal Trade Commission has taken action against some of the manufacturers of these products because of their misleading claims. Consumer organizations from several countries have recommended against buying this type of product.
There are several shapes of laundry balls: laundry disks, globes, spheres or doughnuts. Some of the balls carry components inside, like ceramic pieces, magnetic material or coloured liquid that is claimed to be "activated water". Manufacturers claim that these components have certain effects on washing efficacy, although studies don't show any difference between the different types of balls. Some balls can be refilled with pellets of special detergent, or other ingredients.
Laundry balls are marketed as cheaper, environmentally friendly alternatives to ordinary washing powders or liquids. The manufacturers claim the following benefits, which are real:
but they also misleadingly claim many benefits that laundry balls don't have:
Manufacturers rarely agree on why their laundry balls work, hinting that these claims are just made up by each individual manufacturer. Some claims are not backed by science, while others are an exaggeration of benefits. Balls that contain detergents may offer more cleaning power than water alone because their ingredients are comparable to normal washing powder, but in smaller quantities. It is claimed that conventional washing powder manufacturers recommend using more powder than is necessary, and that these powders contain unnecessary fillers or fragrances.
The effect of the laundry balls may be explained by simple mechanical action and by the usage of hotter water. Some manufacturers claim that their products reduce energy consumption, but their pamphlets recommend using hot water. Hot water will clean some types of spots better than cold water, leading some people to conclude that the balls worked. The mechanical action of the laundry balls can help clean some types of spots, but a golf ball will achieve the same effect for much less money.
Some manufacturers claim that the components inside their balls emit far infrared rays, which are claimed to reduce the surface tension of water and facilitate washing. The claim of emitting infrared is not false, as all materials emit "far infrared waves" at room temperature, in other words, heat radiation. It is also true that heating reduces the surface tension of water, but the effect of the radiation emitted by the balls is negligible compared to the radiation emitted by the internal walls of the washing machine or by the water, especially if it's hot water.
Magnetic water softeners claim that their magnetic fields can help remove scale from the washing machine and pipes, and prevent new limescale from adhering. Some companies claim to remove hardness ions from hard water, or to precipitate the molecules in the water so they won't "stick" to the pipes, or to reduce the surface tension of water. The claims are dubious, the scientific basis is unclear, the working mechanism is vaguely defined and understudied, and high-quality studies report negative results. The reputation of these products is further damaged by the pseudoscientific explanations that promoters keep putting forward.
Some magnetic products claim that they "change the molecular structure of water", a pseudoscientific claim with no real scientific basis. There is no such thing as "magnetized water". Water is not paramagnetic, which means that water molecules don't align in the presence of a magnetic field. Water is repelled by magnets because it's diamagnetic, but to such a small degree that most instruments can't detect it.
Some balls are refillable with small pellets of detergent which are sold only by the manufacturer of the ball. Critics question whether the amount and type of detergent released by these balls is sufficient to generate significant cleaning effects.
In 1997 Trade-Net, sold a laundry ball product (the Blue Laundry Ball) in various US states. Trade-Net claimed that the blue liquid inside their balls was structured water "that emits a negative charge through the walls of the container into your laundry water." "This causes the water molecule cluster to disassociate, allowing much smaller individual water molecules to penetrate into the innermost part of the fabric." Dennis Barnum, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Portland State University, said that the liquid was just water with a blue dye and couldn't possibly have the effect claimed by the manufacturer. Barnum also said that the claims were "gibberish" and used scientific terms in ways that sounded educated to the layman but didn't make any real sense. The Oregonian tested the balls, and found they washed marginally better than hot water with no detergent, and worse than using detergent.
After complaints, Trade-Net's claims were investigated by consumer protection departments in Utah, Oregon and Florida, amongst others, and the company was prohibited from making certain claims, including that "that such product cleans as well as conventional laundry detergent". Trade-Net offered a 'new' laundry ball product after this, but were forced to pay fines, including $190,000 to Oregon's Department of Justice, $10,000 to Utah and then in April 1999, $155,000 to the states of New York, Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma and the FTC. The company disappeared shortly thereafter. The Federal Trade Commission has levied fines against other companies for similar fraudulent claims. However, other companies kept selling similar products over the Internet.
The judge ruling against Trade-Net, issued in April 1999, said the manufacturers failed to substantiate their claims and hadn't informed consumers about reports showing that the claims were incorrect.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission published in 1999 about laundry balls, rings and discs: "Tests show that these gadgets do little more than clean out your wallet. At best, they’re marginally better than washing clothes in hot water alone, and not as effective as washing them with laundry detergent. At worst, the products are completely useless."
In 2000 the women magazine Good Houseekeeping tested several laundry balls sold in the US and concluded that "these gizmos do little more than clean out your wallet."
In April 2009 the Italian consumer association Altroconsumo carried a small test and concluded that laundry balls didn't wash better than plain water.
In 2009 the Spanish consumer organization OCU made a study of "ecobolas" (a type of laundry ball marketed in Spain). It compared the efficacy of the laundry ball, normal detergent, and no detergent at all. It concluded that laundry balls were no better than using just water, and it recommended that consumers simply use a minimum amount of detergent.
On the 15th November, 2011, the Hong Kong Consumer Council published a report on the effect of using washing liquid, washing powder and washing balls. The former two were shown to be effective in removing stains. The washing balls, on the other hand, are as effective in washing out stains as plain water.
Some organizations recommending against their use are Consumers Union, International Fabricare Institute (now called Drycleaning and Laundry Institute), Maytag, Soap and Detergent Association and Spanish OCU.
In February 2011 the Spanish National Institute of Consume (Instituto Nacional del Consumo INC) ordered 14 manufacturers to cease their deceiving advertisement after testing the wash balls and concluding that they are as effective, or even less effective, than washing with water alone.
By making very vague claims, marketers can continue to sell laundry balls without running afoul of consumer protection laws that require veracity in advertisement.
In August 2012 the Portuguese Consumer Rights Council requested a ban on the washing balls because none of the advantages advertised were proven in tests.
During the initial marketing boom, balls were manufactured for other market niches, like washing cars.