Several papers are today reporting the results of a Which? Magazine round of testing that aims to prevent consumers from being misled by the claims of certain products.
Anti-wrinkle creams, photo printers and peanut butter makers are all denouced by the trusted publication, but two related products on this list caught my eye in particular: wash balls and dryer balls.
Which? have run their respected laboratory tests on the products and judged them unnecessary or unhelpful. I'm not entirely surprised: the products' claims of efficacy are often based on poor, if not ludicrous, scientific explanation.
There's nothing like a bit of chemophobia to sell a product. From their website:
The pink and blue dryerballs® mechanical softeners have different tensile strengths and different shaped softening nodes. They work together in the tumble dryer to mechanically soften fabrics without the harmful chemicals found in fabric softener and dryer sheets. The dryerballs® lift and separate the laundry whilst drying, thus reducing drying time and creasing. The dryerballs® softeners also retain the heat and transfer it to the clothes as they tumble, further speeding up the drying process.
And further in the site (under "The Environment"):
When you use dryer sheets or fabric conditioner you are coating your clothes with a thin film of petroleum based artificial chemical and fragrance. Nearly every chemical that touches the skin can find its way into the body and may be toxic. As a reult [sic] dryer sheets and fabric conditioners are bad for your health and can cause skin irritation and worse.
Of particular note is the "nearly every chemical that touches the skin can find its way into the body and may be toxic" bit. Well that's as maybe, provided you also say nearly every car has an engine, and may kill you. Their false logic, that because _some_ chemicals are toxic and therefore dryer sheets are bad for you, is irresponsible scaremongering at its worst. Dryer sheets pass health standards tests just like these dryerballs must have to make it to market. The fact that they also pass toy standards tests, as they proudly attest on their website, is a bizarre fact to promote.
The specific part of EU certification they refer to is "EN71 pt 3", which comes up on the International Organisation for Standards website as:
ISO 8124-3:2010 specifies maximum acceptable levels and methods of sampling and extraction prior to analysis for the migration of the elements antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium from toy materials and from parts of toys.
As plastic balls, I presume that the regulators thought there was a reasonable chance a child would mistake this for a toy, and therefore required the manufacturer to conform to these standards. I'm not sure they'd require the same standards from dryer sheets.
While I couldn't pass comment on the supposed mechanism of action (something to do with differing tensile strengths and "natural softening"), Which? certainly could. Their tests showed that, in contrast with the manufacturer's claims of reduced drying times, the balls actually increased the required drying time. Not a good start.
Furthermore, Which? report no improvement in softness or crease reduction. So it would appear these balls are not only making pretty broad claims about dryer sheet chemicals (with no evidence provided) but also don't do what the manufacturer claims.
The quote from Which? on Amazing dryer balls: "They were amazing for all the wrong reasons. Their claim to improve creasing and softness had zero effect in our tests, plus they didn't save any time on drying."
Wash or eco- balls
On to my favourite. I saw some of these on the shelves at my local Oxfam, and was astonished to read "the science bit" on the back of the box. I couldn't find anything that looked like an official website, but here's some text from ECOutlet which apparently only sells "original authorised eco-balls":
Place the three Eco Balls in your washing machine instead of detergent for natural cleaning. Together the Eco Balls produce ionised oxygen that activates the water molecules naturally and allows them to penetrate deep into clothing fibers to lift dirt away.
There is some seriously interesting research going on around the world to "split water" with sunlight and a catalyst, often based on titanium dioxide, to generate hydrogen for power storage. Advances have been made, but the fact remains that water is a pretty stable molecule and you need a lot of energy to split it. That's why there's quite a lot of it about. If the eco-balls manufacturers have managed to split water and create oxygen anions with a 30 degree wash and some plastic balls, they're up for a Nobel prize or two.
Some of the listed benefits are lower wash temperature, shorter wash time, antibacterial, and softening clothes. Which?, however, reports otherwise: "Barely cleaned better than water alone at 30 degrees C."
So according to Which?, both of these products are a waste of money. I would tend to agree, given the sketchy and implausible scientific claims made on their packaging and websites.
The fact that these products sell can mean only one of two things, and both are sad states of affairs: one is that these companies truly believe their products work, and have managed to persuade themselves and others that the science is sound; the other is that they know their products don't deliver, but prey on innocent customers who are trying to be ethical, environmentally-conscious consumers, and feed them pseudoscience and guilt until they pay for a load of balls.