Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Washing in Salt Water
Name: Chrissy Ann F.
Status: other
Age: 30s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 4/7/2004

Can you wash clothes in ocean salt? Can you bathe in ocean salt?

Hi Chrissy!

You can, but it does not take out the dirt. The salty water contains many salts dissolved, this prevents any soaps or detergent to clean by dissolving the dirt particles.

Thanks for asking NEWTON!

(Dr. Mabel Rodrigues)

In principle yes, but the salt is not very kind to your skin and will leave your clothes saturated with salts, so it isn't very comfortable. Also most common detergents don't work so well in salt water.

Vince Calder

I bet soap works better for most smudges, and I hope I get to rinse my skin with un-salty water before I dry off. I'm sure there are some advantages, and some disadvantages. Sun-dried ocean salt added to fresh water would be noticeably different than just bathing in surf, because it would have less sand and organic sea-foam scum, and because you could adjust the concentration of salt in your water. I've read advertisements claiming it's good for your skin to bath in slightly salty water rather than pure, and this sounds a bit plausible. You'd have to see for yourself whether you actually see any benefit.

You could easily set up your own science experiments comparing cleaning by plain water, soap and water, and salt and water, for at least three different kinds of dirt.

Soap is classically considered the best thing for greasy dirt. Be sure you include something like a drop of melted butter on a cloth, or bacon grease, or vegetable oil. Another frequently encountered category is non-chemical particulates, i.e., dirty fingerprints, dried mud, or wet starch with dark-colored dust in it. Chemically locked-together dirt results from proteins such as dried egg-yolk. Not sure what grass-stains and red wine are due to. Maybe they are just large, dye-like molecules that hug their solid hosts tighter than most dirt, or maybe there is a chemical-locking action there, too.

The expected chemical effect on cleaning is like this: Pure water is a fairly broad-range, very polar solvent. Like dissolves like, so It fails to lift non-polar, greasy dirt. Soapy water is polar water with a bit of non-polar medium dispersed throughout it. So it cleans most everything water cleans, plus many greasy things. Also a bit better at segregating dust away from the surfaces that are bathed in it. Salt makes water more polar, but relatively few stains need an improvement in water's strong suit. Some dyes, maybe. For most greasy dirt, salty water is probably about the same as plain water.

Every now and then my hands get dirty with blackish, possibly oily, dust from the workshop. My first rinse with plain water carries off visible amounts of it, before I add soap. I get the impression that using soap first would actually slow down this removal. It seems to have lifted because it was water-repellant! (and cloth/hands weren't) I think that draperies accumulate similar dust, and are therefore washed first in plain water with no soap. It might be interesting to measure whether salt magnifies this effect. Not sure yet, how best to intentionally make some of this dust.

Jim Swenson

Click here to return to the Chemistry Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory