Many consumers are as loyal to the type of laundry detergent they use as they are to their favorite soft drink. Some just buy the type of detergent for laundry that their family has always used and others buy what’s on sale. When it comes to laundry detergent, consumers are most concerned about the ability of a detergent to remove stains and keep colors bright.
With so many choices on the market, you’re sure to find a laundry detergent that fits your budget and meets your laundry cleaning needs as well as your family's preference for fragrance and environmental responsibility.
The Difference Between Soap and Detergent
Laundry soaps and detergents differ. Laundry soaps are more natural options for laundry use since they are made from fatty acids. Detergents are synthetic products made with surfactants (which help to trap and remove dirt on clothing). As good as soaps are for the environment, they may not be as effective at cleaning clothing as detergents.
Types of Laundry Detergent
General-purpose laundry detergents are available in three classifications: liquid, powder, or single-dose form. But, there are five types of detergent. All forms of laundry detergent will clean clothes well and are good for HE (high efficiency) or standard front-load and top-load washers (but you'll need to know if your washer is HE so you can choose HE detergent). Read on to find out what the top five types of detergent are and how to choose the laundry detergent that's best for your needs.
Liquid detergents are particularly effective on greasy, oily stains and can be easily used as a pre-treater for stain removal. The most common problem with liquid detergent use is using too much per load or overdosing. But, the easiest way to correct this is to change your measurement tool.
Most washing machines need up to 3 tablespoons of detergent at the absolute max, with most needing 2 tablespoons or less for most average full loads. The easiest way to get yourself to use the right amount is measure with a shot glass. Most shot glasses are approximately 1 oz, or two tablespoons, so they're perfect.
Great for oily stains
Good for front- and top-load washers
Tendency to use too much each load
May leave residue on clothing
Measuring caps tough to read
Powder detergents are usually less expensive to use per load. This type of detergent is most effective on mud stains and ground-in dirt. Powdered detergents can be problematic if you have extremely cold water or only use cold water for washing because they may not dissolve completely. A great trick to combat this is to use a large mason jar. Heat up around 3 cups of water, bring it to your laundry room, add a 1/4 cup of powder detergent, close it and shake it, and pour it in the machine for an easy, no-mess solution to the powdery residue issue.
Always add powdered detergent to the washer drum before clothes and water are added. If you experience problems with residue, mix the detergent with a quart of hot water and add that directly to the washer drum before doing a load of laundry.
Great for mud stains and dirt
Good for front- and top-load washers
May not dissolve quickly
Grainy in cold water
May leave residue on clothes
Single-Dose Packs and Tablets
Single-dose packs are the most convenient and simple to use, especially if you must use a community laundry room or laundromat. But they are also the most expensive to use per load of laundry and may take two packs to handle really dirty clothes or extra-large loads. Single-dose packs are pre-measured for an average soil and size load. If you do large loads of laundry or heavily soiled laundry, you may need to use two.
These can also be problematic for households with small children and vulnerable adults because they are often mistaken for candy and can cause poisoning. It is essential to learn to use laundry detergent packs correctly and safely. Take a look at your family’s needs and that will help you make a decision about using single-dose products.
Good for front- or top-load washers
Most expensive per load
Takes two packs to handle serious dirt
Can be mistaken for candy, causing poisoning
Liquids, powders, and single packs can be used in all water temperatures and almost all brands are now formulated to use in high-efficiency or standard washers. Look for the HE symbol to be sure. Both liquid and powder types are available in concentrated or ultra forms. Be sure to read the labels to ensure that you are using the correct amount per load of laundry.
Good for all water temps
Good for HE and standard front- and top-load washers
You can use less than standard detergents
Can be more costly
Overdosing leads to stiff and scratchy fabrics and trapped odors
Higher quality HE detergents cost more
Laundry soaps and detergents are terms often used interchangeably so it's important to read the labels if you want one or the other. For hand-laundering, you can use any type of bar (such as Zote), liquid, or dish soap. But for the washing machine, you'll want to use a true non-detergent laundry soap, such as liquid Dr. Bronner (but with HE washers, you'll need to watch how much you use). Typically, laundry soaps come in bar or flake form. A laundry soap, such as Fels-Naptha Laundry Bar, is oftentimes called for in DIY laundry detergent recipes.
Soaps can rinse better from clothing than detergent
Gentle on clothes
It's possible to combine less harsh soap with detergents for best results
Soaps can be more costly
May not be effective on heavy-duty dirt and stains
May produce soap scum in HE washers (front- and top-load)
Watch Now: Liquid, Powder, or Pods for Laundry Detergent?
Combination Laundry Detergents
A combination detergent does two jobs. Examples include a detergent plus fabric softener or color-safe bleach or bleach alternative. Some of these features enhance a detergent’s performance. Others may be unnecessary and add only additional costs to each load.
Specialty Laundry Detergents
Detergents that are designed for hand-washing or machine-washing delicate items are less harsh than regular detergents. Made for light soil and delicate fabrics, they are a good choice in the right situation.
Fragrance and dye-free detergents are best for baby laundry and those with allergies or sensitive skin.
Does Laundry Detergent Price Equal Quality?
Price isn't always the best indicator of detergent quality. The key is looking at the list of ingredients in the types of detergent brands. The more active ingredients like surfactants that lift soil away from fabric and suspend it in the water and enzymes that remove stains in the product, the better the detergent. And, those ingredients raise the price of the product.
You'll find three tiers of detergent pricing in most retail outlets:
- Expensive: (Tide, Persil ProClean) These are heavy-duty detergents that include enzymes, surfactants, and other ingredients to remove most stains and heavy soil.
- Mid-level: (Purex, Gain, Arm & Hammer, all) These detergents include some enzymes to contribute to stain removal but contain far less than the heavy-duty detergents. They work well on light soil if used correctly in optimum water temperatures.
- Discount: (low-end store brands, Foca, Xtra) These products rely heavily on surfactants that suspend soil until the water in your washer can flush them away. They are not the best at removing stains or body soil from fabrics.
Consumer Reports Magazine, Good Housekeeping Institute, and other unbiased testing institutions have consistently shown and listed Tide and Persil ProClean as the best cleaning detergents on the market. However, many of the mid-level products work very well on light and medium soil and can save you money. Much of laundry success is in using the right water temperatures, pre-treating stains, and not overloading the washer. Only you can determine the best detergent choice for your family's laundry.
Ferri, Ada, Osset, Miquel, Konstadinos, Abeliotis, Amberg, Caroline, Cevza, Candan, Owens, Jeremy, et al. Laundry Performance: Effect of Detergent and Additives on Consumer Satisfaction. Tenside Surfactants Detergents, vol. 53, no. 4, 2016. doi:10.3139/113.110451
Bonney AG, Mazor S, Goldman RD. Laundry detergent capsules and pediatric poisoning. Canada Family Physician, vol. 59, no. 12, pp. 1295-6, 2013.
Laundry Care for People with Eczema. National Eczema Foundation.
Best and Worst Laundry Detergents From Consumer Reports' Tests. Consumer Reports.