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It is a dark green, gelatinous, thixotropic substance used to clean grease, oil, printer's ink, or general persistent, hydrophobic dirt from the skin. Swarfega is used by working a small amount into dry skin, then wiping or rinsing off. As with other such cleaners, it can be more effective than soap or other common cleansing products at removing such dirt; accordingly, Swarfega has become virtually ubiquitous in environments where this kind of dirt is common, such as garages and machine shops.
Swarfega was invented in 1947 by Audley Bowdler Williamson (28 February 1916 - 21 November 2004), an industrial chemist from Heanor, Derbyshire. In 1941 he had founded a detergent-sales company, Deb Silkware Protection Ltd., based in Belper, to produce a formulation for extending the life of silk stockings. The name derived from "debutante", to signify the newness of the company and its products. The introduction of nylon stockings threatened to render it superfluous; however, Williamson purportedly suggested that mechanics had already found it useful for cleaning their hands.
This may have been a myth encouraged to attract interest, but the product was reformulated and marketed as Swarfega, becoming the company's main product. (The company’s name had been changed to Deb Chemical Proprietaries Ltd.) Before Swarfega, mechanics used a variety of harsh home-brewed cleaners such as paraffin (kerosene), sand and petrol. These removed the skin's natural oils, leading to dry, cracked skin and the risk of occupational dermatitis.
The effectiveness of Swarfega is due to the hydrophobic ingredients, notably medium-chain (C9-C16) alkanes and cycloalkanes; in combination with an emulsifier (Trideceth-5 in current formulations). These are more efficient at solubilizing oil and grease than a detergent alone.
In the UK, the word "Swarfega" may be used as a generic term for all similar cleaners, particularly if they have the same green jelly-like appearance as genuine Swarfega. According to the company website;
The name derives from “swarf”, being the old Derbyshire engineering term for oil and grease and “ega”, as in “eager to clean”.
This may be a bit confusing, as "swarf" now commonly refers to the metal shavings and chips resulting from metalworking operations. The word did not originally mean oil or grease as Deb claimed, but rather the waste material from a grindstone (or similar material resulting from wear in a machine). This material would be a wet or oily mixture of grit abraded from the wheel and filings from the workpiece.
Deb expanded its product range and has long offered a range of products either related to detergent ingredients, or sold to the same mechanical trades. Many of these such as Jizer, a water-rinsable degreaser used for washing mechanical parts rather than mechanics, first defined the original market for a new product that has now become commonplace.
A similar product, called "Dirty Paws", was available in the UK in the 1950s but has now vanished. It was orange, not green.
In recent years, Swarfega has lost the ubiquity it once had. There are now many competing products, such as Rozalex Two Fives and Rozalex Gauntlet. Deb have even repositioned their own "Suprega" and "Tufanega" for industrial use. This has an orange colour, emphasising its "natural" origins and citrus oil ingredients. As with its own precursors, Swarfega now raises concern over removing skin oils and so a gentler solution is sought[according to whom?]. Some[clarification needed] may also contain mechanical scrubbing additives. Polymer grains have recently been removed from Swarfega products and have been replaced with environmentally friendly coarse polenta or cornmeal.
It was reported on 3 March 2010 that the manufacturer of Swarfega had been sold to an investment firm for £325 million.
- "Audley Bowdler Williamson (Obituary)". The Times. December 14, 2004.
- "Latest Wills", The Register, The Times, 19 August 2006, page 67.
- "Tufanega range". Deb Ltd. External link in
- news.bbc.co.uk Derbyshire-based Swarfega manufacturer sold for £325m