The hygiene mythbuster

22 May 2017

This issue, Cleaning Matters columnist Seán Derrig is repelled by misleading claims made about laundry magnets

Some myths are seated so deep they never go away. And no matter how many times we pesky scientists debunk them they just keep coming back.

Myths about magnets are among the oldest. Magnets have fascinated us ever since we discovered them. The market for wearable fridge magnets remains strong, replete with claims they relieve pain, increase energy, improve circulation and cure pretty much anything that ails you - despite countless studies showing any effects are pure placebo.

But what about laundry magnets? I was sent some recently and was amazed. For a start, the claims made of the product were so carefully drafted that at no point do they explicitly state it actually works – but the most incredible thing is the price. Fifty quid.

Yes, fifty quid for a pair of magnets barely strong enough for the magnetic field to pass through the plastic coating.

So, how are these things supposed to work? It seems magnets work in a number of ways: they ‘ionise’ water and lower its surface tension and – were that not enough – they use quantum mechanics to ‘raise the electrons in hydrogen to a higher state of activity’.

Wow. While you digest that, allow me to make a statement that is equally credible by way of illustration: elephants are carnivorous aquatic birds that live underwater.

There is one inescapable fact that no science word-salad or label claim can change. Water is not magnetic. But it does have something called a dipole – one end has a slight positive charge, the other a slight negative. This is a bit like north and south in a magnet but water has an electrical dipole, not a magnetic one. The two things are very different.

So, can magnetism improve laundry results? Nope. Totally implausible, as demonstrated by a recent study showing any cleaning effect was equal to that of water alone. But the magic balls may have a cleaning effect, however.

A major factor in the washing process is mechanical action. The laundry gets pulled upwards by the rotation of the drum and then falls back down due to gravity. So don’t overload the machine – if you curtail this mechanical bashing you’ll get poor wash results.

So, it’s plausible that the mechanical action of the balls might help the wash process. But if you want to give it a try, use a couple of smooth stones and save yourself fifty quid.