When you hit the laundry products aisle or shop online, there are dozens of brands of detergent all promising to make your laundry clean and fresh. While the choices were once limited to boxes of powdered detergent, you can now find all types of laundry detergent in liquid, powder, or single-dose pods.
So which type should you choose?
Liquid, Pods, or Powder?
Liquids, pods, and powders can all be used in any wash water temperature and almost all brands are now formulated to use in high-efficiency front load or top load washers; just look for the "HE" (high-efficiency) symbol to be sure. You may actually have a hard time finding a detergent without the symbol, but rest assured that you can use the laundry detergent in a standard top load washer.
Whether you decide on liquid, pods, or powder, remember that price isn't always the best indicator of how well a detergent will perform in cleaning your clothes. The key is to look at the list of ingredients on the product label. The more active ingredients listed in the formula—like enzymes that break down stains and surfactants that lift the soil away from the fabric and suspend it in the water—the better the detergent will perform.
Liquid Laundry Detergent: Pros and Cons
Since liquid laundry detergents hit store shelves in the mid-1950s, they have become the most popular detergent format. They are easy to use, distribute well in wash water, and come in a huge variety of scents. But as with most products, there are both pros and cons.
Perfect for using as a stain pre-treater or spot cleaning.
Particularly effective on oil and grease stains because the liquid will penetrate the fibers of the fabric to help release the stain.
Less expensive than single dose pods
The measurement lines on most detergent bottle caps are difficult to read, causing consumers to use too much detergent per load, wasting money, and leaving residue on clothes and washing machines.
Plastic laundry detergent bottles provide an enormous strain on landfills. Most bottles can be recycled, but many consumers and municipalities do not participate in recycling programs.
Water is the main ingredient in liquid laundry detergent. Water is heavy to transport and shipping adds to consumer and environmental costs.
Liquid detergents limit the effectiveness of some cleaning ingredients, like oxygen bleach, because they are not stable for long periods of time when mixed with water.
Single Dose Laundry Detergent Pods: Pros and Cons
If you are looking for convenience, then detergent pods top the list. Laundry detergent pods or pacs appeared in 2012 as one of the biggest changes to laundry products in more than 50 years. The single dose pacs ("pods" a term trademarked by Tide) contain detergent and sometimes other cleaning or softening ingredients in a small polyvinyl film packet that dissolves in water. They are the fastest growing segment of laundry detergent and already outsell powder laundry detergents.
Single dose detergents can be problematic for households with small children and vulnerable adults because they are often mistaken for candy and can cause poisoning. And because the pac is compact, when it is punctured detergent can squirt directly into eyes. It is essential to learn to use laundry detergent packs correctly and safely.
While the most convenient to use, especially if you must use a community laundry room or laundromat, they are also the most expensive to use per load of laundry.
Lightweight to carry or ship and require very small storage space.
Convenient and simple to use.
A pre-measured dose of detergent produces consistent results. Overdosing is eliminated.
Manufacturing eliminates most water and allows cleaning ingredients to remain stable for longer periods and produce better results.
Less packaging waste for landfills.
Most expensive detergent cost per load of laundry.
Packs are designed for average soil and load size. Heavily soiled clothes and large loads require two pacs and increase costs significantly. Packs cannot be adjusted for small loads or hand-washing single items.
Packs cannot be used for pretreating or spot treating stains.
Poisoning hazard and easily swallowed by children and vulnerable adults.
Outer packaging for the pods is seldom recyclable.
Powder Laundry Detergent: Pros and Cons
Powdered detergents have been around since the 1930s and are less expensive to use than liquid or pods per load. When you look at store shelves, there are very few left as more consumers have moved to liquids and pods.
Retailers have had a hand in this because the large boxes of powder take up valuable shelf and warehouse space. While the cardboard boxes are more environmentally friendly than plastic bottles, they are heavy and impact the environment with more transportation costs.
Smallest cost per laundry load of any type of laundry detergent.
The packaging is recyclable and more environmentally friendly.
Most effective laundry detergent for areas with untreated hard water thanks to additives that are more stable and easily added to powdered formulas.
Powder detergent formulas are more stable than liquid or pods. This allows ingredients to be added that perform exceptionally well on tough to remove outdoor stains like grass and mud.
Large, heavy boxes are difficult to handle and store. The detergent must be stored in a completely dry area to prevent caking.
Powder detergents can be problematic in extremely cold water by not dissolving completely leaving residue on fabrics.
Pretreating stains is more difficult because a paste must be made first with the powder detergent and water.
Shipping costs are more expensive and make a larger impact on the environment.
What About DIY Liquid, Pod, and Powder Detergents?
If you would rather make your laundry detergent, there are recipes available for liquid, pod, and powders. As with commercial products, there are some pros and cons with any homemade laundry detergent.
Homemade laundry detergent in any form saves a few cents per load of laundry.
Homemade detergent has a smaller environmental impact than detergent made by a large manufacturer. Of course, the ingredients in homemade formulas—soap, borax, and washing soda—are made by large manufacturers.
Clothes are exposed to fewer chemical ingredients.
Homemade DIY products are safe to use in high-efficiency washers.
Cleaning performance is limited especially on hard to remove stains.
Health Hazards Associated with Laundry Detergent Pods — United States, May–June 2012. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.