Consistent Formulation, Continuous Improvement: Introducing Robust, Easier-to-Use Detergent Packaging

Michael Moussourakis, Vice President of Strategy at Alconox Inc., sat down for a Q&A with Pharma's Almanac Editor in Chief David Alvaro to discuss Alconox's packaging upgrade from their iconic milk carton to a new recyclable plastic jar for their range of powder detergents. This transition, fueled by their commitment to continuous improvement and customer feedback, aims to provide more robust and secure packaging that caters to the diverse and precise needs of clients in pharmaceuticals, medical device manufacturing, and research sectors. The conversation highlights Alconox's dedication to innovation while maintaining the efficacy of their trusted detergent formulations, ensuring that they meet modern standards and customer requirements.

David Alvaro (DA): To start off, can you tell us about the products that Alconox offers and how and why their packaging designs have evolved over the last 80 years of company history?

Michael Moussourakis (MM): Alconox offers more than 15 different types of detergents, each playing a different role and serving a different purpose. We continuously revisit the variety of surfaces our customers need to clean, including potential residues, to determine the most effective and suitable cleaning process.

Additionally, a key consideration is deciding if the detergent should be offered in powder or liquid form. Powders have the advantage of lower initial costs since they don't involve shipping water. However, there is a tradeoff because mixing the powder into a detergent solution can require a little more effort than creating a solution from a liquid concentrate. It is easier to mix a liquid into another liquid. At Alconox, therefore, we make a point of offering an array of different formats and detergent options to meet every kind of need.

Originally, our primary powder products were housed in metal containers. In the late 1970s, there was a shift to the now iconic milk carton design with a classic spout or squeeze top. This design proved to be excellent for easily pouring out the powder, whether it was to prepare an ultrasonic bath or soaking solution or to apply a small quantity onto a sponge for scrubbing.

The cartons were designed to be reclosable by simply pushing the spout back into place. However, this method doesn't create an airtight or particularly strong seal. As a result, if a carton is kept in a laboratory under a sink or close to an ultrasonic tank where there's ambient moisture, it's likely that moisture will seep into the carton over time. Since the powders have hygroscopic properties meaning they attract and capture water molecules from the surrounding environment this exposure to moisture leads to the formation of clumps within the powder.

Today, Alconox is rolling out new packaging for our powder detergent range in a plastic jar that will solve these problems associated with the carton. The new packaging provides a significantly more robust closure system in addition to many other beneficial features. It features a safety peel-off seal that assures users that the container is untouched and has not been previously opened. Additionally, it can be securely resealed after use.

The development of this new packaging solution was heavily influenced by listening to feedback from our users and input from our own scientists using the existing packaging in our labs. After all, we have to clean things, too. Using the intelligence we gathered, Alconox developed a packaging solution that we believe will be a gamechanger in the sense that it will become the new icon for the next 40+ years. It is ergonomic with a pinch grip and reclosable, and it includes a self-locating spout for added convenience and precision in use.

DA: Which are the powder products that will be offered in the new packaging?

MM: Four different powder detergents will be offered in the new packaging. The first is the classic Alconox powder detergent, renowned as a versatile cleaner for removing organic and oily residues and the product generally synonymous with the Alconox Inc. brand. Another standout product is Tergazyme, a powder detergent enriched with proteases, or protein-digesting enzymes. This formulation is adept at tackling not only oily and organic residues but also challenging protein-based contaminants, such as blood, biopharmaceuticals, and other resilient protein stains. The powder format is particularly crucial for keeping the enzymes inactive until use, thereby maximizing shelf life.

The other two products are the low-foaming powders Alcojet and Tergajet, both tailored for use in lab washers that operate similarly to residential dishwashes via a “cup-in-door" style chamber. Alcojet is formulated with phosphate chelators and oxidizers and can remove aromatics and other organoleptic lingering residues. Tergajet is a phosphate-free option for applications where phosphates are not permitted, such as in some environmental laboratories.

DA: You are moving away from an iconic package familiar to anyone who has spent time in a lab or a manufacturing suite. What are you doing to ensure that the new packaging will be as recognizable?

MM: In the process of revamping the packaging for these powder detergents, considerable thought was dedicated to the potential impact of moving away from the recognizable image associated with the products. In fact, I was one of the major holdouts resistant to the change because of concern over losing that iconic image. However, many other factors drive this type of decision, including manufacturing and cost considerations. For instance, filling powders into the traditional milk cartons leverages older technology that doesn't match the reliability and security provided by modern machinery used for filling jars.

The image is important, though. Some scientists’ and engineers’ awareness of Alconox detergents may be more passive; reminded by the visual cue of the product. That visual cue association has largely been with the milk carton for Alconox detergent (or the quart for Liquinox). That packaging has become a visual signal of the reliable cleaning product they need. 

Ultimately, Alconox products will be recognized and valued because they work, not just because of improved packaging. It is a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario. A product that doesn’t work, even if offered in the most eye-catching, ergonomic, and efficient package possible, will not be remembered. The Alconox milk carton is memorable because the product inside delivers results. Distinctive packaging helps reinforce the brand, but it doesn’t convert people into returning users of the product.

So yes, there was some trepidation. However, this compelled us to ensure we were doing the right thing. After careful consideration, we are confident that adopting the new jar packaging is absolutely the right thing to do.

DA: Beyond accessing more modern manufacturing technologies, what other benefits does the jar packaging offer Alconox?

MM: Switching to a recyclable plastic jar for packaging provides a more secure and robust option than using laminated cardboard. The durability of the plastic jar coupled with a safety seal offers added security throughout the shipping process. For workers in critical sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, medical device manufacturing, healthcare, and others where cleaning processes require validation, this new packaging ensures that the detergent is safely guarded against the many unknowns that can occur during transport.

DA: Can you tell me a little bit about the design process and the novel features for the new packaging?

MM: Our clients in the medical device, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, healthcare, and other sectors depend on Alconox detergents not just for cleanliness but as a critical component in their work to clean parts and equipment, ultimately aiding patients and others in need. We are acutely aware of this responsibility. When our detergents are easier to use, everyone benefits. The pinch grip, for instance, allows for easy pouring, even when the jar holds a full 4 lbs. (1.8 kg) of detergent. The self-locating spout, which always aligns with the handle across the jar, ensures controlled pouring, which is crucial for achieving the precise concentration measurements — often 1–2% (occasionally higher) — required in many applications. We also sought to create a more sustainable solution, using recyclable plastic jars.

Overall, many different factors were considered, and we determined which were must-haves or important-to-haves. No decisions were made unilaterally. Instead, they were made by a committee after many discussions and extensive attention to the voice of the customer.

DA: How did you take into consideration the very wide range of customers Alconox serves, from university labs to big pharma firms?

MM: It is true that some customers use huge volumes, while others might use a tiny amount at a time. The packaging is a wide-mouth jar that accommodates different usage needs. The powder detergent can be poured from it, or the top can be removed to use a scoopula or other device, allowing measurements as precise as needed, down to the milligram level and below. As a result, precision and accuracy are increased. When the package is closed again, the seal is reformed. This ensures maximum shelf life of unused powder detergent.

DA: How do you see the new packaging aligning with Alconox’s broader company mission and messaging?

MM: Everything about the change was driven by listening to our customers. We held both informal and formal discussions with users about their perceptions of the packaging and potential alternatives. Alconox has always emphasized partnering with customers, whether in pharma, biotech, medical device, or academic research. We make it a point to visit them, engage in dialogue with them and with dealers, meet them at trade shows and conferences, and always keep our eyes and ears open so we can understand their pain points, whether they concern packaging; residues not sufficiently addressed with current detergents; new, exotic plastic or metal surfaces; or evolving regulations.

In addition to continuous communication, introduction of the new jar packaging reflects another of Alconox’s core beliefs: continuous improvement. The company has been in business for nearly 80 years, and during that time we have established two parallel themes: tradition and consistency on one hand, and innovative and forward-looking on the other. The new jar packaging also reflects that theme. The array of detergent formulas has changed very little or stayed identical over the decades because they work so very well, but the packaging makes the product more secure and easier to use.

Alconox takes pride in its ability to adapt enduring principles and traditions to new technologies, industries, and formats. That can only be done through proper communication, open channels, conferences, trade shows, and being present where our customers are. The new packaging of our time-tested products is a perfect example.

DA: While I have you, are there any other updates on what is happening at Alconox that you can share?

MM: We are in the final stages of R&D for a couple of new products, and while we never can know what the future holds, I can say Alconox has exciting plans for 2024, and we may be making an announcement or two later in the year. Those developments are once again aligned with continuous improvement, the voice of customer, addressing new and difficult residues, emerging industries, and ensuring that we provide a comprehensive portfolio of aqueous detergents for our customers.

Looking back at the end of 2023, it’s worth noting the publication of the 5th edition of Alconox’s "Aqueous Cleaning Handbook.” A book of this magnitude was years in the making. The first discussions were held in March 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic extended the project’s timeline a bit. Over those three years, some new regulations were issued that were not initially captured in the book. As a result, this 5th edition will be updated in early 2024 to address these changes, mostly with respect to cleaning validation.

Alconox also completed construction and started up an expanded second lab that supports both customer testing and more extensive in-house testing for R&D development, detergent characterization, and the fine-tuning of technical specifications. We also invite people with difficult cleaning challenges to come talk with us. In many cases, we can make recommendations for cleaning studies that can be performed by our customers. And if a screening study is needed, Alconox can conduct such a study on supplied parts or residues. The lab is equipped to simulate many different manufacturing and laboratory settings to verify the performance of our products in different applications.

DA: In that vein, is Alconox in the process of formulating solutions to address any emerging and challenging residues?

MM: Medical device battery production and 3D printing operations for medical device and pharma applications involve substrates and residues that were not previously commonplace in critical cleaning. The world is becoming more regulated and stringent, however, and “kind of clean” and “clean enough” are now being replaced by “critically clean.” Critical cleaning directly impacts product and process value.

Other emerging sectors include cannabis and cosmetics, which increasingly fall under regulations aligned with those governing the pharmaceutical industry. Cosmetics manufacturers face difficult residues, given that the products are designed to stay on the skin, which is itself designed to repel materials. They can be extremely difficult to remove from glassware and stainless steel. Alconox has recently introduced new detergents designed to address the cleaning challenges faced by cannabis and cosmetics producers. Cannabis, in particular, is also on a regulatory path toward classification as a drug product. Educating players in this field has therefore become a key activity at Alconox so they can stay ahead of the curve on cleaning compliance.

The EPA and other regulatory bodies cannot be ignored either, as they are seeking to eliminate the use of certain hazardous solvents, such as those that are flammable, combustible, explosive, or otherwise dangerous to operators and the environment. Replacing a harsh solvent with an aqueous detergent is not always straightforward since these solvents serve specific purposes. However, there are many applications where aqueous detergents can replace outlawed or restricted solvents or even mundane solvents, such as isopropanol and ethanol, which are not hazardous per se but are certainly flammable.

Alconox actively seeks opportunities to educate people about the benefits of switching to aqueous cleaners, including not only improved safety but in many circumstances better economics. While not all these solvents can be replaced in all applications, there are instances where better, safer, and more cost-effective cleaning can be achieved with an aqueous detergent, and Alconox has a comprehensive portfolio of potential solutions.

For any product inquiries, please contact Alconox

Michael Moussourakis

Michael Moussourakis is Vice President of Strategy at Alconox Inc., headquartered in White Plains, NY, and is responsible for marketing and technical support and for corporate strategy. The marketing and technical support teams provide cleaning related support, guidance, and product leadership to Alconox Inc. customers for their critical cleaning needs. They take great pride in ensuring Alconox Inc.’s products, procedures, and information meet and exceed cleaning market requirements. Michael has over 20 years of experience in the biotech, pharmaceutical, medical device, and laboratory industries. Through various and progressive roles in hands-on technical services, marketing, product management, commercial development, and corporate strategy, he has contributed to industry via publications, training, talks, and committee participation. Michael’s technical expertise covers critical cleaning, filtration, and process troubleshooting. Michael holds a B.S. and an M.S. in biomedical engineering from the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Q: