Can HE Laundry Detergent Be Used in a Regular Clothes Washer?

person pouring HE detergent into a washer dispenser

The Spruce / Michele Lee

The laundry detergent aisle in grocery and mass market stores is filled with dozens of brands of laundry detergents, each claiming to be the best. Not only do you have to decide which brand and type (liquid, powder or pod) to select, there are some bottles with a symbol that indicates that the detergent is "HE," or high-efficiency laundry detergent specially formulated for use in high-efficiency washers.

You have an older standard top load washer at home. Is this HE detergent safe to use in a regular washer and will it get your clothes clean?

HE Laundry Detergent in Standard Washers

You can use HE detergent in a regular or standard top load washer with a center agitator but not the other way around. Non-HE detergents cannot be used safely or effectively in high-efficiency top or front-load washers.

HE detergent contains the exact same cleaning ingredients, surfactants, enzymes, water conditioners, as the non-HE detergents of the same brand. The difference is HE detergent is formulated to be low-sudsing for high-efficiency, energy-saving washing machines that use less water in the wash and rinse cycles. You may certainly use it in a standard or regular washing machine. You will notice fewer suds, but your clothes will be just as clean.

HE Laundry Detergent Characteristics

As with most liquid detergents sold in the United States today, high-efficiency laundry detergents contain less water and are more concentrated that detergents were in the past. Containers are smaller because shipping big bottles filled mainly with water is very expensive and reduced profits. Some stores actually demanded smaller containers because they don't want to store the large bottles. Retail shelf space is at a premium and retailers and detergent manufacturers want to put as many of their products in front of your shopping cart as possible.

How Much HE Detergent Should You Use?

Since the detergent containers and measuring lids are smaller than you may remember, it is important to take a few minutes to read the directions and determine how much product to use for your load capacity and type of washing machine.

For standard or regular top-load washers that use many more gallons of water, use around one-fourth cup (four tablespoons) of high-efficiency laundry detergent for a regular-sized load of laundry. High-efficiency front and top-load washers only need around two teaspoons of HE detergent per load of clothes because they use so little water.

If you have an automatic detergent dispenser in your standard top-load washer, check your manual to see how much detergent it holds. Lost the manual? Use a measuring cup to fill the dispenser with water to determine how much it holds. Compare that amount to the suggested four tablespoons. You probably need less HE detergent than the dispenser holds. If the dispenser functions better with more product, add the detergent and then fill it up completely with plain water.

If you skip the measuring step and simply turn the bottle over and pour the detergent directly into the washer, you are wasting money and may actually end up with clothes that are not as clean. Excessive detergent that isn't washed away attracts soil and leaves clothes looking dingy.

The term HE does not necessarily indicate quality. It is still important to shop wisely to determine the best detergent for your family's laundry needs.

Why HE Laundry Detergents Are Sold

When you are shopping for laundry detergents, you may actually have a hard time finding a detergent that doesn't have the HE symbol. The need for HE detergents came to the forefront when front-load washers were introduced to the United States appliance market in the mid-2000s. While front-load washers have been a European standard for decades, Americans had to relearn how to do laundry, including how much detergent to use.

Americans were persuaded through advertising (and a few Looney Tunes cartoons) to believe that lots of suds and bubbles were necessary for clean clothes. High-efficiency washers, both front-loading and top-loading, can't handle lots of suds because there is not enough water to flush them away. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that a standard washing machine uses 41 gallons of water per load, but a high-efficiency washing machine uses less than 28 gallons of water (most use around 14 gallons), saving of 6,000 gallons of water per year for an average family.

Excessive bubbles and suds from a non-HE detergent can actually destroy the electronic capabilities of a high-efficiency washer, void the warranty, and cause excessive odors to build up. So, low-sudsing or HE detergents had to be introduced to the consumer market.

Article Sources
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  1. Water Efficiency Management Guide: Residential Kitchen and Laundry. EPA. 2017.