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Cracking the cold code: How Tide redesigned its detergent for a better wash

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Clothes getting washed in cold water.

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This article is sponsored by P&G

It’s no secret that the planet is in hot water, environmentally. It is for precisely this reason that Tide has spent years researching and developing a product that will give customers a superior clean in cold water.  

Since the invention of washing machines, hot water has proven to be effective at removing visible stains, preventing odor and grime build-up — all of which are vital tasks considering the average person produces one liter of sweat, 10 grams of salt and 40 grams of sebum (body oil), while shedding 2 billion skin cells, every day. These and other body soils can account for 70 percent of the "invisible dirt" in a load of laundry. 

Despite all its laundering benefits, hot water requires significantly more energy for every load, which in turn has a negative impact on the environment. Indeed, if three out of four consumers shifted from hot water laundering to cold water laundering by 2030, it would have the power to reduce 4.25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That’s the equivalent to removing almost a million cars from the road for a year.

For decades, however, the thought of switching exclusively — or primarily — to cold water washing has been a non-starter. Consumers believed that cold water washing just wasn’t as safe and effective as hot water washing. And for much of that time, they were right.

That began to change in 2005, when Tide introduced Tide Coldwater, a new version of our longstanding detergent which was formulated to deliver superior performance in cold water. Since then, we at Tide have continued to refine all of our detergent formulas for cold water washing. It wasn’t easy.

Cracking the "cold code" meant re-designing key ingredients in our formulas — particularly Tide’s cleaning "work-horses" such as enzymes. Enzymes are naturally occurring proteins that break down stains and make them easier to remove. Up until recently, they were only effectively activated in warm temperatures. Today, Tide products feature proprietary cold-water enzymes that allow consumers to conserve energy while still getting a great clean in cold water. 

Still, decades long habits are hard to change. Many consumers continue to follow tradition, choosing warm or hot water washing, while others remain skeptical about Tide’s cleaning power in cold.

The truth is, in almost every situation, the facts tell us that washing in cold water with Tide is equally as effective as washing in hot water. 

Here’s some proof. Recently, Tide asked Charles P. Gerba — better known as "Dr. Germ" — to do some research into the hot vs. cold conundrum. A professor of virology in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, he is internationally renowned as an expert in detecting pathogens in water and food. 

First, Gerba dirtied more than 20 laundry loads by adding nasty contaminants such as E. coli, human coronavirus 229E (the cause of the common cold) and a replica for a type of stomach flu virus. Next, he washed them in cold water (60 degrees Fahrenheit) with an industry-standard detergent, then dried them in a hot dryer.

The results? No E. coli or common cold viruses could be detected in the washed/dried clothes. Only the stomach flu virus remained, and it was eliminated through a hot water wash followed by complete drying on a hot setting.

This study showed that in healthy households with the occasional respiratory virus, consumers can confidently wash their laundry in cold water. Only in households when someone has a stomach bug should clothes be washed in hot water; and if the sick person’s clothes are kept separated from the clothes of other residents, the other clothes can safely be washed in cold water. 

Gerba’s study confirmed that most loads can be washed in cold water. Not only that, but consumers who try washing in cold with Tide report a better wash experience, citing its cleaning and stain removal power while providing better color protection, increased clothing longevity and fewer wrinkles. All on top of knowing they’ve made an environmentally friendly choice. 

As part of Tide’s 2030 Ambition — a set of broad-reaching sustainability and purpose-driven commitments announced in March — we’re investing heavily in education and awareness campaigns to share the benefits of washing in cold, with a specific goal of turning three in four loads to cold by 2030. We’re enlisting the help of well-known celebrities, such as Ice-T and Stone Cold Steve Austin, to serve as "cold callers" in a humorous television advertising campaign calling on their famous friends to turn to cold. We’ve also teamed up with like-minded partners such as Hanes to share cold water benefits and call to actions on packaging. By broadly engaging consumers to wash in cold, we can collectively make a big impact when it comes to reducing GHG emissions. 

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