Cleaning Spilled Laundry Detergent

It’s been a very busy last few weeks, as my Mom passed away quite suddenly and I’m trying to find her will in and amongst her vast files (I think she has every check and financial statement dating back to her marriage to Dad 60 years ago). Needless to say, it’s been a hard, emotional few weeks.

My daughter was visiting us from across the state, because her husband had two job interviews that day. Being a Wednesday, the guys left to do their work or interview thing, while she and I decide what we’ll do to take my mind off my Mom’s passing and the mountain of work to settle her estate (both financially and dealing with her many possessions). I tossed in a load of laundry, and we turned on the TV.

My daughter decides that it’s time to brush the dog — which requires two people, a muzzle, and the ability to not laugh hysterically at the dog’s unnatural noises that sound much like an alien as he voices his displeasure. As we’re trying to brush him, we hear something fall off the front-load washer (not unusual as it vibrates a lot). I keep the large, liquid detergent bottle with the spigot on top of the washer because it’s easy to open the drawer and dispense the detergent right into it.

As we chase the recalcitrant dog across the room, I notice a pleasant, fresh smell, like fresh laundry. Mmm…smells good. Hmmm…it smells strong. Oh crap…it smells too strong! I jumped up and ran to the hallway and found this:

Ugh. That was a brand-new jug of detergent.

Ugh. That was a brand-new jug of detergent.

Just in case I didn’t have ENOUGH stress in my life right now.

Ok, ignore the piles of clean laundry I have yet to put away, including the clean items draped over the tub. And ignore the piles of laundry on the floor staged to go next. Focus on the floor. The floor that is normally a light beige.  Like those six square inches by the bottles? Ugh. Maybe it’s a good thing that I staged the laundry there, so it could soak it up?

It appears that the brand-new jug somehow leapt off the washer, and did a half somersault, landing perfectly on the cap, cracking the cap and crushing the neck where it screws in. As it lay on its side, it leaked out at least half of the contents of the jug. It was probably a half-inch deep by the dryer.

So what, exactly, is the best way to get up this mess? First, remove the items that are swimming in the detergent and place them in the laundry tub (first removing the clean laundry from the edges of the tub). Add a bit of water to cover and let them soak.

Secondly, scrape up as much as you can. I used a dustpan and some cardboard and dumped it into bucket (and eventually would fill another bottle to throw it out — I shudder to think about that much detergent going down the drain all at once!).

Now there’s just a thin, thin film. It’s very smeary and extremely slippery. A wet rag simply seems to make suds. More water = more suds. Wiping it dry with a dry paper towel seems to leave that same, thin film! How do you get that film off?

A bit of Googling uncovers the fact that laundry detergent is a surfactant, or a chemical that has one end that wants to bind to water and the other to the oil or dirt you’re trying to clean (here’s the article). Hmm…if I keep pouring water on it, it seems to want to cling to the floor. What if I gave it some dirt or oil to cling to? Sounds plausible, right? OK…how do I get a thin layer of dirt or oil? If only I could spray oil on to it. Wait! Nonstick cooking spray!

Armed with my house-brand cooking spray, I sprayed a small portion of the floor in front of the washer that was covered with a smeary film of bluish detergent with an equally thin spritz of cooking oil. Looking at it, I’m wondering if I’ve lost my mind! I took a dry paper towel, and…

…it all came off the floor! It was nearly effortless! Just to be sure I got up all the mess, I used a light spray of general purpose cleaner to ensure that I had removed all the residue, whether oil or detergent. Wow, that was easy!

OK, just to be sure, let me try the next area. Light spray with cooking oil, wipe, and…CLEAN! Spritz with just a little general purpose cleaner to help pick up any stray, slippery bits of detergent or oil, and it’s squeaky clean. Wow, this seems to work! I tried a few areas with just a plain, dry paper towel, and it seemed to leave that sticky, smeary film (though slightly, almost imperceptibly, less of it). The oil seems to combine with the detergent to let it release from the floor and be wiped up easily, and the extra water-based cleaner will get any stray bits.

For the whole spill, it took only about a quarter of a roll of cheap paper towels to clean up the mess this way, and no water. Moving the washer and dryer around to get underneath was the hardest and most time-consuming part. Giving the detergent something to cling to, other than the floor, seemed to really help.

After that, it was more loads of laundry with extra rinses (and no added detergent!) to get the detergent-soaked laundry clean.

I guess the silver lining is that I got all my laundry done, my floor cleaned, and my mind was taken off of my Mom’s passing for a while. And I learned a bit of chemistry that helped me clean my floor quickly, turning what could have been a huge, sudsy mess into a relatively easy cleanup task (if moving the machines in a very small laundry room is “easy”).

5 Comments to “Cleaning Spilled Laundry Detergent”

  1. Did the liquid pass the base molding to the dry wall? Did mold form since the incident?

    • It didn’t appear that the liquid passed the base molding. There seems to be an inordinate amount of caulk used in this house and for once, it helped! No mold has formed, to my knowledge.

      • Thank you for the quick reply. We literally had the same exact incident this weekend. i was laughing at ” pleasant fresh smell”. We also had a pan under the washer but it was cracked so the liquid could not be contained. i regret not having it fixed sooner. However, the liquid creeped to the caulk to the bathroom next to it. So the question is, does mold form with just water or any liquid can cause mold? im trying to “google” and not much is coming up.

      • I’m so sorry you had the same thing happen! I know that mold can form with moisture. I know I see it in the soap/softener/bleach dispenser a lot. I’m not an expert by any means, but if moisture can grow mold, the lack of moisture can prevent it? So, face a box fan towards the baseboard and let it go for a few days? A quick Google search shows that borax can inhibit mold. You can mix it with vinegar and salt, too (NOT BLEACH!), so maybe if you mix up a borax/vinegar slurry, you can get it to flow where the laundry detergent did? Borax is easy to find. It’s a powder in a box near the laundry detergent at most big box stores and larger groceries. Keep borax away from children and pets as it is toxic if swallowed; protect your hands with gloves while you work on it if your skin is in contact with it for a while, as it’s quite alkaline. Otherwise, it’s not a chemical that’s toxic to the environment or poses a great risk to pets and people if traces of it are left near the baseboard. (Bonus: it’s quite toxic to insects!) Enjoy the pleasant, fresh smell! You have to enjoy SOMETHING about this, right?!

      • Thank you for that tip! Never knew borax had that purpose. I will try it out 🙂 and yes definitely have to keep it away from our little one and our cat

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