Laundry powders vs liquids review

Liquid or powder? CHOICE determines which detergents give you the best clean.
 
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01 .Introduction

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Test results for 49 detergents - 20 liquids and 29 powders

We test and compare whether liquid or powder detergents are better for general soil removal, stain removal, waste water recycling, and which are safe to use on our garden. We also calculate the cost per wash to find which product gives the best value for money, as laundry detergent is the largest expense when running your washing machine.

CHOICE finds:

  • Reasonably priced detergents that wash well and have a lower environmental impact.
  • A notable product on performance, price and environmental grounds when used at a half dose.

For more information on Washing and drying, see Laundry and cleaning.

While the results contained in this report are still valid, a newer Laundry powders review is also available.

Brands tested

We picked the top selling brands of powder detergents, and tested a selection suitable for the two different types of washing machines.

Front loader detergents

  • # Biozet Attack Powder Front Loader
  • Cold Power Powder Front Loader
  • Drive Powder Front Loader
  • Duo Exotic Tiger Lily Powder Front Loader
  • Dynamo Liquid Front Loader
  • Earth Choice Liquid Front Loader
  • Eco Store Lemon Powder Front Loader
  • Fab Sunshine Fresh Powder Front Loader
  • Hurricane Liquid Front Loader
  • Omo Small and Mighty Powder Front Loader (Also tested at HALF DOSE)
  • Omo Small and Mighty Liquid Front Loader
  • # Omo Sensitive Small and Mighty Powder Front Loader
  • Omo Sensitive Small and Mighty Liquid Front Loader
  • Omo Ultimate Powder Front Loader
  • Radiant Micro Max Powder Front Loader
  • Radiant Micro Max Liquid Front Loader (also tested at HALF DOSE)
  • Seventh Generation Liquid Front Loader
  • Spree Lavender Powder Front Loader
  • Surf Powder Essential Oils Tropical Flowers Ylang Ylang Front Loader
  • Surf Liquid Essential Oils Tropical Flowers Ylang Ylang Front Loader

Top loader detergents

  • BEE I'm One Tough Little Squirt Liquid Top loader
  • BEE I Triumph Over Grime and Evil Powder Top loader
  • Biozet Attack Airburst Powder Top loader
  • Bosito's Euco Fresh Liquid Top loader
  • # Cold Power Powder Top loader
  • Cold Power Liquid Top loader
  • Cold Power Sensitive Liquid Top loader
  • Drive Powder Top loader
  • Duo Exotic Tiger Lily Powder Top loader
  • Dynamo Liquid Top loader (Also tested at HALF DOSE)
  • Earth Choice Liquid Top loader
  • Eaternal Soapnut Sachets Top loader
  • Eco Store Lemon Powder Top loader
  • Euca Powder Top loader
  • Fab Frangipani Powder Top loader
  • Herbon Oil of Eucalyptus Liquid Top loader
  • Hurricane Lemon Liquid Top loader
  • Omo Ultimate Powder Top loader
  • Omo Small and Mighty Powder Top loader
  • Omo Small and Mighty Liquid Top loader
  • # Omo Sensitive Small and Mighty Powder Top loader
  • Radiant Micro Max Powder Top loader
  • Radiant Micro Max Liquid Top loader
  • Seventh Generation Powder Top loader
  • Seventh Generation Liquid Top loader
  • Spree Lavender Powder Top loader
  • Surf Powder Essential Oils Tropical Flowers Ylang Ylang Top loader
  • Surf Liquid Essential Oils Tropical Flowers Ylang Ylang Top loader
  • Trimat Powder Top loader (Also tested at HALF DOSE) 

# Has been reformulated since we tested.

How we test

  • Dirt removal score Our testers, Graham Byrne and Petr Valouch, measure out the recommended detergent dose for a normally soiled load (or lightly soiled if a normal recommendation is not given), and use it to wash specially soiled swatches attached to laundry items in cold water (20°).
    • Soils swatches used to measure general soil removal are stained with nut oil, milk and a colour pigment.
    • Stains In addition, they include swatches with two very common stains according to our product use survey: grass (which tests detergents for their action on general stain removal and enzymes that target proteins) and tomato (enzyme “cocktail” action and bleaching effect).
    • Dirt Using a spectrophotometer, which measures how much light reflects off the swatches after filtering out any effects of optical brighteners, they measure how much dirt is removed. These readings are more accurate than the human eye – differences of about 6% are noticeable.
    • Waste Water Recycling These tests are conducted in collaboration with the Water Services Association of Australia and Melbourne’s City West Water. The detergents are analysed for the total dissolved solids (TDS) that hinder the recycling process at water treatment plants. The lower the TDS value, the better it is for recycling and reuse. 
    • OK for the garden To find out which detergents are safe to use as greywater on a garden or lawn, Lanfax Laboratories, which specialises in soil, water and waste water makes recommendations on which detergents are best. While none of the products are completely harmless, the ones noted with stars in this column are suitable for intermittent use on a home garden or lawn with an area of 150m2-200m2.

    Phosphates

    • Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have committed to remove phosphates from their detergents by 2013, and Unilever has already started to roll out phosphate-free detergents (look for the NP symbol), though there are already many phosphate-free and low phosphate detergents available. However, the total dissolved solids (mostly salts such as sodium) are most detrimental to the environment. For details on what to look for, using greywater, and what makes a detergent OK for your garden or for recycling, read on.

     
     

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    The water from washing machines contains several chemicals that aren’t good for plants or soil. If the concentration or total load of these chemicals is too high, you’ll eventually end up harming your plants and wrecking the soil.

    How we test suitability for greywater

    Lanfax labs, which specialises in soil, water and waste water analysis, makes recommendations on which detergents are safest to use on your garden.

    The components most likely to cause problems are phosphorus, salinity, sodium and pH, but we also looked at sulphur, boron and total alkalinity.

    Results were considered on a per-wash basis, assuming intermittent use only in your garden (interspersed with clean water) and over an area of no less than 150 to 200 square metres.

    It's safe to use the rinse water from any detergent, but the wash water from those with one to three stars in the 'OK for the garden' column in the Compare detergents table can also be used.

    Note that the amounts used were those recommended for 'normally' dirty clothes — if you use more or less detergent the results will be different. The less you use the better for the environment, and you'll probably still get a good wash result. See Detergent overdose for more.

    • Phosphorus Small amounts of phosphorus can be useful for plants, and it’s a major component of fertiliser. Australian soils are typically low in phosphorus, and some native species can’t tolerate high levels. Higher levels of phosphorus can be acceptable if you have clay soil, because it binds to clay minerals and doesn’t leach away. On sandy soils, excess phosphorus can leach into groundwater. When it gets into waterways it can contribute to excessive algal growth, leading to toxic algal blooms. Ideally, the amount of phosphorus per wash shouldn’t exceed 1g.

    • Salinity All laundry detergents contain salts, typically sodium salts such as sodium nitrate, sodium sulphate, sodium phosphate and sodium silicate. (Table salt — sodium chloride — isn’t used in detergents.) Salinity can be determined by measuring the electrical conductivity of the solution (in deciSiemens per metre, or dS/m). All laundry detergents are highly saline, and frequent long-term use would likely harm your garden, unless it was spread over a large area.

    • Sodium The sodium in the salts harms not only plants, but soils as well. It effects the soil’s permeability and causes a loss of structural stability. Manufacturers could use potassium salts instead of sodium, but they're slightly more expensive.

    • pH Laundry detergents are highly alkaline (that is, have a high pH) to help dissolve organic dirt, such as grease, oils and food scraps. Most biological systems prefer a pH between 6 and 9, and grey water with a high pH is likely to harm many plants and soil organisms.

    • Total alkalinity Laundry detergents contain chemical 'buffers' to help prevent pH changes in the water/detergent solution, thereby maintaining optimal pH level. A measure of total alkalinity tells us that many are very highly buffered, so would require enormous amounts of acid to counter the alkalinity. If you put this water onto soil, the pH of the soil would be more likely to change than that of the grey water.

    • Sulphur and boron Sulphur and boron are important plant nutrients, though they can be a problem if there’s too much of them. The small amounts of sulphur in laundry water shouldn’t cause any problems unless the soil is prone to waterlogging for long periods. None of the detergents had levels to cause concern.

    • Accumulated chemical load If you collect the wash and rinse water before using it, the contaminants in the wash water will be diluted. However, the criteria we used in our chemical testing considered the total load of problem chemicals that will accumulate in your garden over time, not just their concentration when you first put them on, so the recommended irrigation area (150 to 200 square metres) still applies. Potential impacts on your garden are very dose-dependent — you could try reducing the amount of detergent you use, providing it still gets your clothes acceptably clean.

    • Problems There have been reports of grey water hoses acting as a siphon and pumping water from the washing machine while it’s still washing or rinsing — something to consider if your washing machine doesn’t seem to perform as well as usual.
      The water from washing machines contains several chemicals that aren’t good for plants or soil. If the concentration or total load of these chemicals is too high, you’ll eventually end up harming your plants and wrecking the soil.

    About the claims

    Some products are marketed as 'green’ detergents. Presumably we’re meant to think their impact on the environment is less than that of regular laundry products. In reality, all detergents, no matter what their formulation, affect the sewerage system and aquatic environment.

    A laundry detergent is a complex product made up from numerous chemicals. To determine its full environmental impact, you’d need to assess the physical, biological and chemical effects of its formulation on the environment.

    Biodegradability

    This is the ability of chemicals to break down naturally in the environment. Manufacturers tend to make claims about biodegradability in reference to the Australian Standard. All laundry detergents must comply with this standard anyway, though it’s limited. It states that 80% of the surfactant must break down within 21 days. There’s no mention of the other 20%, or of chemicals produced during the breakdown process which could be toxic or non-biodegradable.

    About grey water

    What’s your soil?

    If you don’t know what type of soil you have, this quick test will give you an idea. Take a handful of soil, add a little water and make it into a ball.

    • Loam soil will form a moist ball with an ‘earthy’ smell. It’s usually brown, and holds and drains water well.
    • Clay soil forms a hard, smooth ball. Its fine, dense particles inhibit water movement, and when it dries it resists water. Its colour can range from white to red to dark brown.
    • Sandy soil is soft and crumbles easily — it probably won’t form a good ball. It’s light in colour, has little or no smell and is low in nutrients and organic matter.

    Using greywater

    • Greywater can be treated and stored and used on the garden (or even in toilets or washing machines), or else it can be diverted to the garden with a plumbed-in diverter (with a switch so that if it’s raining, it goes into the sewer instead). Conditions may apply in the area where you live; contact your local council for advice on options available.
    • DIY options include attaching an extra-long flexible hose from the washing machine to the garden or using a bucket.
    • If it’s untreated, limit usage to water from the shower or bath, and the rinse water from the washing machine. Kitchen water contains fats and solids that might damage soil and plants.
    • Don’t store untreated greywater for more than 24 hours; if you can’t use it (because it’s raining, say) don’t keep it.
    • If someone in your family is sick with gastro or flu or another contagious disease, stop using the greywater.
    • Don’t water herbs or vegetables.
    • Keep the greywater underground, or under mulch — this helps prevent evaporation, as well as keep it away from kids and pets.

     Specifically for washing machine water

    • We tested only the wash water for chemicals that could harm your garden. What comes out of your machine may also include dirt and bacteria and viruses from the dirty clothes.
    • If you collect the wash and rinse water before dispersing it, the contaminants will be diluted and you can spread them further. However, the criteria we used considered the total load of problem chemicals that will accumulate in your garden over time, not just their concentration when you first put them on, so the recommended irrigation area still applies.
    • Potential impacts are very much dose-dependent — you could try reducing the amount of detergent you use, providing it still gets your clothes acceptably clean.
    • The larger the irrigation area, the more you’ll spread the chemical load. Don’t water pot plants. Washing machines account for almost a quarter of household wastewater or — depending on your machine — about 60 to 180 litres per wash. We tested the wash and rinse water for chemicals that could harm your garden. What comes out of a washing machine will also include dirt, and perhaps bacteria and viruses from the dirty clothes. These are all good reasons for not storing untreated water. 
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