Better cleaning through chemistry: Ridding detergents of harmful thickeners

The global laundry detergent market is currently valued at around USD 130 billion, with projections that it will grow to USD 180 billion over the next few years.


The challenge
Thickening agents are used in liquid detergents to control flow while also increasing solubility and preventing the separation and settling of components during transformation and storage. Traditionally, styrene has been used. However, styrene is a volatile organic compound. It is highly reactive and flammable, making it difficult to handle, and styrene is also classified as a carcinogen and irritant. Plus, it is not biodegradable and is especially harmful to aquatic life when passing through to water, as washing detergents tend to do.

“This monomer was recently added to our portfolio. We had just received training when the customer contacted us for advice. We cooperated closely with the customer throughout the whole process, learning together, and the result is that the customer is the first company in Spain to use this ingredient for this application.”

Jara Ferrando

Market Manager, Coatings, Iberia

Our innovative approach: Seeking a styrene substitute

One of our customers is amongst the leading producers of detergent components in Spain. They wanted to add a high-performance thickener to their product range that didn’t include styrene. The technical challenge was an ambitious one: to develop an acrylic polymer, with good compatibility with salts and inorganic compounds, that would provide the proper viscosity properties within a wide pH margin.

Fortunately, our team had recently received training in the use of a specialty monomer, which was being used in paints and coatings, amongst other applications. Its characteristics, such as being extremely hydrophobic and enhancing viscosity, made it ideal for the development of the new thickener.

Solution & results

Developing the new high-performance thickener took almost two years, from lab testing to full production. The key to the project’s success was the close cooperation between IMCD and our customer, who had a high level of confidence in our technical expertise and ability to support them. Now the customer can differentiate its products from the competitors’ through an innovative application that prevents having to use styrene – a result that delighted both customer and supplier.

During development, it became clear that the high performance of this kind of thickener would be useful in a wide range of applications. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, when demand for sanitising products boomed, the thickener proved ideal for use in the production of hydroalcoholic hand sanitiser gels. The product, for which the customer expected to see a slow and steady growth, was already a top performer through Q2 and Q3 of 2020.

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