Look! It’s…Chemistry Man?

Wish you could be like Superman (or airport security) and see things the mere mortal can’t? Or wish you had special powers to make things happen without lifting your little finger? We can kinda accomplish the former and for sure the latter by…ta-da!…DOING DISHES!

Water is pretty amazing and I’ve long been fascinated by the fact that I could work like a dog scrubbing baked on goodness from plates and pans OR could fill them with water, come back a couple hours later, and all would be dissolved and easily rinsed away. I know it’s a chemical reaction but I didn’t know exactly what was happening so I did a little research that helped me roughly visualize what was happening in my own sink.

Most of us know water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen. Many molecules are either negatively or positively charged, kind of like the two terminals on your car battery. Water is made of one big oxygen molecule, which is negatively charged, and two smaller hydrogen molecules that tend to hang out together at one end of the oxygen molecule.


Because one whole end of the oxygen is free to do as it likes it stays negatively charged and, like a magnet, seeks out its opposite, positively charged molecules. Molecules like sugar and salt, which are part of much of our food, are positively charged molecules. When water and food come in contact with each other, as in the sink, the negative end of the water molecule makes a beeline for the positively charged sugar and salt, surrounds each molecule, and separates them from each other dissolving the food. Interestingly, oil is not positively or negatively charged so water will not attach to it and the two stay separate with the grease remaining on the dish. Fortunately, detergents components include a molecule that attracts both water and fat dragging the oil and water down the drain finally cleaning the plate.

Isn’t that amazing?!? I love seeing how things actually work!

Although this explanation leaves a lot of information out, it’s a simple example of forces of which many of us are only roughly aware. Obviously, the detergent and washing machine scientists (thanks guys!) knew all about this long ago but we each have our specialities…and blind spots. Thanks to all of you who are sharing the first and minimizing the second.

Take care and thank chemistry the next time you’re facing the dreaded dishes.

FUN FACT: Rinsing your dishes in hot water helps them dry faster!


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