The Great Laundry Detergent Cap Scam

The scandal associated with the excessive use of cleaning and laundry fluids is a global phenomenon. In Israel it has a particularly aromatic twist

Laundry detergent.
Arturs Budkevics / Shutterstoc

“I’m bewildered anew every time I confront the container,” says Moshe, a lawyer, who contacted Haaretz discreetly. “I say to myself, ‘Why take the risk that it won’t smell the way it should?’ So I always add a little more. I’m sure I use too much, and I have no doubt that the companies want this to happen.”

Moshe makes a living from representing corporations – “bad ones,” he says – so in approaching a newspaper, he was crossing the lines. Everyone who gives a tip to a journalist has a back, and there’s a straw that breaks it. Moshe’s dramatic move is understandable, because this particular straw drives everyone with a heart and a wallet crazy.

We’re talking, obviously, about the caps on laundry detergents.

A case in point is Colon gel, which boasts that it can make 101 types of stains disappear, including “heart of palm,” “leek quiche” and “Alfredo sauce.” The instructions call for using 45 milliliters of detergent per five kilos of laundry, and if the laundry is especially dirty, double that amount. So far, so good. But is the volume of the cap 45 ml.? Of course not. Does the cap indicate clearly the 45 ml. level? No way. There are ultra-thin lines inside the cap, as delicate as those in a Japanese drawing. Look hard and you’ll discover that they denote 20, 30 and (for some reason) 37.5 ml. To figure out the recommended amount, you need the type of equipment used by root-canal experts, and plenty of patience.

But Colon is a gold mine compared to Ariel and Tide, which at the beginning of the year stopped including measuring cups altogether. Since then, their customers eyeball it. The response from the manufacturer, Procter & Gamble: “A measuring cup will be sent at no cost to anyone who requests one.”

Here’s a suggestion for a fun way to spend an afternoon. Go to your nearest supermarket, read the instructions for the laundry detergents and fabric softeners, and peek into the caps. I did that until I started to get woozy from all the perfuming substances.

In 15 of 16 products, “one full cap” was not mentioned as the preferred measuring unit in the instructions. The manufacturers talk in terms of parts of caps, which leaves lots of room for using more detergent. They also see to it that the measuring markings inside the cap are tiny and illegible, assuming that they exist at all. Everyone shall fill as he or she sees fit. The situation with the so-called ecological detergents is far better, by the way. Maybe that’s testimony to the connection between social and environmental justice. Or whatever.

With cleaning-products manufacturers doing all they can to be vague, it’s clear that puzzled consumers will round things upward. Even legal eagles who are used to being on the side that makes others sweat, do that. For his part, the distraught Moshe sent me photos of cap after cap: shampoo for cars, dishwasher liquids, cleaning gels for floors.

With the Lenor “in-wash scent-booster” beads, Procter & Gamble outdid themselves. “It’s soeasy,” the container declares (in Hebrew), running the two words together. “Use a little or a lot… and enjoy a powerful fragrance. Recommended dosage: 18 grams. Up to 3 at most for one wash.” But the bottle top doesn’t allow you to measure 18 grams; there are two lines inside, but no explanation of what they mean. Ask your nearest diamond-cutter to weigh it for you, because regular kitchen scales might not help. Three capfuls of beads, by the way, weigh 180 grams – which happens to be the size of the entire bottle.

This is obviously a global phenomenon. The local twist is that in Israel there’s apparently a tendency to be sucked even more deeply into this black, aromatic hole and to use detergents and other cleaning liquids ad nauseam. Israelis, after all, are known for being obsessed with cleanliness, but are also not the most fastidious when it comes to measurements and precision.

“A study conducted a few years ago by Neka 7 [a local soap and shampoo brand], which compared Israel to Europe, found that detergents are used in Israel wildly. With powders, fabric softeners, dishwashing liquids – it’s all over the top,” says Amit Avigdor, whose Tamooz industrial design firm has worked for many corporations. The companies don’t want to make things hard for the customer, he observes, but they are not entirely indifferent to the charm of surplus usage. “Not one manufacturer said, ‘Let’s be a groundbreaker and use precise markings,’” he adds.

When the industry wants to be exact about such things, it knows very well how to do it. No manufacturer of infant formulas, for example, would dream of forgoing a measuring spoon, the way the makers of laundry detergents do. Here’s another example, from Moshe’s bathroom: Lately he switched from Listerine to a medicinal mouthwash. With Listerine he assumed that the cap was the correct measure (mistake!) but discovered that for years he used twice the recommended amount. The other mouthwash, by contrast, comes with a measuring cup that is unequivocal.

The vagueness serves the manufacturers twice over. It leads to over-use and it also drives everyone who’s had enough with the enigmatic caps into the arms of the appallingly expensive liquid-detergent capsules. But even there the pill is bitter. Most of the capsules are designed for only five kilos of laundry, and for more you need to use two or even three capsules. Persil has broken new ground here: Its capsule is designed for 4.5 kilos of laundry, a smaller amount than the capacity of the smallest washing machine sold in Israel.

Excessive use of detergents does more than waste hundreds of shekels per household every year. The warning, “Harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects,” which appears on some packages of laundry capsules, is a reminder that cleaning our clothes entails environmental agonies. These are not especially kind substances. It’s amazing how easy it is to prevent this waste. You can buy a measuring cup for a few shekels, or call Ariel and they’ll send you one for free. From that moment on you’ll know exactly how much you’re using. You are the master of the laundry room, freed from unnecessary expenses, from lugging around heavy containers of gel, from confusion and helplessness and even from environmentally induced guilt feelings.

You cleaned this stain by yourself. If only God will give us the strength to continue to fulfill the mission – but we have so much laundry to do.

Responses were provided by several companies, by means of their local PR representatives. Henkel-Sod, local manufacturer of Persil capsules, states: “The capsules are manufactured abroad and the instructions for use are translated from the international packaging. We referred the question to the global development team and the matter is being examined.”

Says Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of Lenor: “There are two scale marks inside the cap that serve as directions as to the recommended amount to use. This is the range, because the amount of perfume is at the discretion of each user.”

Johnson & Johnson, maker of Listerine, says, “The inner cap has screw markings [but no measurement marks], to prevent confusion … The instructions suggest the use of four teaspoons (a total of 20 ml.).”

No comment was received from Reckitt Benckiser, manufacturer of Colon.