All laundry detergents are pretty much the same, right? They all look the same, they make similar scientific-sounding claims about washing performance, and it often appears that the only real difference is the colour of the box or bottle.
Well, it may come as a surprise to learn that our laundry detergent tests show there can be very big differences indeed when it comes to clothes cleaning capability.
Depending on which laundry detergent you choose, you may be able to use half (yes, half!) the recommended dose and still get a great wash, saving yourself money and giving the environment a bit of a break. In the past we've tested top performing laundry detergents and they worked just as well on all stains at half the recommended dose, while others performed well at half the dose on several types of stains.
While we can't test every dose variation, treat the dosing scoop or cap more like a polite suggestion and experiment with your detergent – you may find you can use a lot less than you think and still get a wash you're happy with.
This really depends on the type of stain you're dealing with and personal preference. While at one time there used to be detergents designed specifically for top-loading washers and front-loading washing machines, this is rarer these days.
Most detergent manufacturers create a single detergent that can be used in both types of machines.
Powder laundry detergents
Powders tend to work well for general soil performance and we've found that they perform best on fresher stains, which are what you'll usually be dealing with in your own laundry. But they generally also work very well on the tough, ground-in stains of our test materials.
Powders can sometimes leave a white, powdery residue on clothes, particularly if you're a little heavy-handed with dosing. At a pinch, you can also turn a laundry powder into a liquid by dissolving some in a little warm water, giving you the best of both worlds. The best thing about powders is that they give you the most control over the amount you use and can be combined with water to create a liquid detergent.
Stick to top-performing powders for heavier soiling and whites. Using a top-performing powder will also help prevent your whites from going grey or yellow over time.
Liquid laundry detergents
Liquid detergents have less impact on the environment, with some getting good ratings for recycling and greywater reuse the last time we tested them. Many poor-performing liquids will still do a good job of freshening up lightly soiled and coloured clothes, though, so if your clothes don't get too dirty, even a poor-performing liquid detergent is the way to go.
If you have a high-efficiency washing machine that uses very little water or you tend to use your machine's eco program, then a good liquid detergent is the best way to avoid white powdery patches being left on your clothes.
What about laundry detergent pods?
Laundry detergent pods, packs, flings, discs or laundry balls are individual-use capsules of liquid laundry detergent concentrate in a dissolvable plastic wrapper that you drop straight into your washing machine. They're much like a dishwashing tablet, only for your washing machine. Depending on the brand and type, laundry pods may also contain fabric softener or other ingredients.
They're convenient – with no measuring, just drop in a disc with your dirty dungarees and you're done – and they avoid the risk of spills and mess associated with powders and liquids, so they're a good option for people with some accessibility issues.
However, this convenience comes at a cost, both in control and financially – you can't easily adjust your dose to the size of your load like you can with loose detergent and they can be considerably more expensive per wash than the equivalent loose laundry detergent.
Of more concern, their shape and bright colouring can make them particularly enticing to young children who can mistake them for lollies. There have been several reports of children ingesting laundry pods, so make sure you store them well out of reach of curious little fingers.
You can often use less than the recommended dose of detergent (sometimes as little as half!) and still get a great wash.
Cost per wash unit pricing (usually per 100g) is a great way to compare costs, but it's not entirely accurate for laundry detergents because of the vastly different dose recommendations between brands – use our cost-per-wash figures in our free laundry detergent reviews instead for a better comparison.
Unlike chocolate (which you're no doubt trying to wash out of your clothes), more isn't necessarily better when it comes to your laundry detergent – most will still get your clothes clean with just a fraction of their recommended dose, so experiment with using less. You'll get your clothes white and clean AND keep your wallet full of green. Speaking of green, using less detergent is better for the environment as well.
No one is ever itching to do the laundry, but if you suffer from sensitive skin then using the wrong laundry detergent can leave you feeling very itchy indeed.
There's a wide range of low-irritant laundry detergents available that claim to be suitable for people with sensitive skin. These detergents generally substitute ingredients that are likely to cause irritation or omit them altogether.
If you suffer from sensitive skin but want worry-free washing, then avoid enzymes and optical brighteners where possible.
A common ingredient in many laundry detergents, enzymes are biological catalysts which speed up the dirt removal process. Manufacturers include various enzymes to target different types of stains, such as protein, starch or biological-based stains like grass or blood. One thing all enzymes have in common though is that they can potentially cause irritation, so avoid them if you suffer from skin irritation.
Another known irritant, optical brighteners bathe your washing in fluorescers – chemicals that absorb ultraviolet light and re-emit it as blue light, making your clothes seem whiter and brighter even though they don't actually remove any dirt. Products with brighteners are best avoided if you have sensitive skin.
Rinse rigorously and repeat
So now you've found a low-irritant detergent you like, but that's not the end of the story – you also need to ensure your clothes are thoroughly rinsed. Inadequate rinsing can leave traces of detergent behind and that's a big no-no if you have sensitive skin. If you notice detergent residue on your clothes or building up in your machine then adding an additional rinse cycle to your wash program may help (if your machine has that option).
You should also try to reduce the amount of detergent you use – both your skin and the environment will thank you. You can check our washing machine reviews and find one that has a high rinse score – the higher the rinse score, the more detergent removed from the wash.
Remember, everyone's skin is different. It may take some trial and error to find a detergent that works for you.
Most laundry detergents use phosphates, which contain phosphorus, to help soften the water and keep extracted dirt in suspension. But high levels of phosphorus going down your drain can lead to excessive growth of blue green algae in our inland waterways.
Low phosphate laundry detergents are better for the environment so you should look for these unless the water in your area is particularly hard (you can check this with your state water authority). Check your laundry detergent's packaging for a 'P' meaning low phosphorus (<7.8 g/wash) or better yet, 'NP' meaning no, or less than 0.5%, phosphorus.
Choosing an environmentally friendly laundry detergent also means you can safely use the rinse water from your washing machine (greywater) on your garden, and at the same time, make a big difference to the cost of treating water so that it can be recycled. The GreySmart rating determines which detergents are best for the environment.
Aside from the impact of the detergent itself, there's also packaging to consider. The more washes per pack you can get, the less package waste, so the better for the environment. Buying larger packs or when on special will usually be more cost-effective, but transfer bulk purchases to an airtight container to maintain performance.
How ethical is your laundry detergent?
This is a question that's getting asked more and more frequently these days. CHOICE doesn't have an in-house ethical investigator, so we've partnered with Shop Ethical who already do a lot of work in this area on detergents, and many other consumer products. We put their ratings into our laundry detergents review (which you can access for free) so you can filter the results based on their findings.
In the past we've retested the highest- and lowest-performing detergents for both top and front-loader washing machines to see whether a warm wash (40°C) would produce a great difference in results.
Generally, there's an overall benefit to washing in warm water, but only by a couple of percent, and it really depends on the type of stains you're trying to remove. Some detergents are also designed for and perform better in cold water.
OK, so you're a cold wash convert...
Washing in cold water is a great way to reduce your energy consumption and save yourself some cash. But it can also lead to a waxy film building up inside your washing machine – especially if you use a fabric softener. This is also known as scrud. You can find more suggestions on how to remove it in our washing machine troubleshooting tips.
If you're a cold wash convert then regularly running a full hot wash cycle without clothes (or a cleaning cycle if your machine has one), using a good detergent, will help keep the build-up at bay. Alternatively, periodically selecting a warm or hot wash instead of cold can help keep your machine's internals at their clean and shiny best.
These days a majority of detergents are designed to be used in both front and top loaders, so most of the time you'll be safe using it in both. In the few cases you've bought a detergent that specifically says it's designed for one type of machine, it's best to stick to that machine type.
Front-loading machines generally use less water and more mechanical action (turning) than top loaders, so front-loading detergents contain anti-foaming ingredients to stop too many suds from developing. Using top-loading detergents in your front loader can cause too many suds to build up in the machine, which can overflow and fill your laundry with foam (to comedic effect).
More seriously it can also cause 'suds lock' – a condition where foam builds up between the inner and outer drums of your washer, creating suction issues which can cause the motor to burn out. The combination of excess suds and low water usage also means your rinse performance (how well the detergent is washed away) will plummet, leaving detergent residue on your clothes.
If you've grabbed the wrong box or bottle when doing the shopping or you've just bought a front loader and still have heaps of top loader detergent left, at a pinch you can use it up in your front loader but you'll need to use a lot less – around a half to a quarter – than you would in a top loader.
If you're a cold wash convert, you should regularly run a full hot wash cycle without clothes and using a good detergent to help keep scrud build-up at bay.
Do laundry balls and soap nuts work?
Occasionally we see products that are claimed to have a low ecological impact when it comes to washing your laundry. These are generally called 'laundry balls' – a plastic ball, usually filled with pebbles – or 'soap nuts' which, confusingly, are actually a type of berry. They claim to be eco-friendly compared to your average detergent, and they're reusable, so they cut down on the cost of detergent.
Sounds good, right? But do they work? No.
Before you go out and spend your money – upwards of $80 for some brands – see how they fared in our laundry ball and soap nut test compared to laundry detergents.
Our past experience with laundry sheets showed they were poor performers. While you may think they are more sustainable as they don't come in a bottle, the ingredients found in laundry sheets are very similar to those in any laundry liquid (minus the water). Not to mention, the chemicals used in laundry sheets enter the wastewater stream without providing any benefit to the cleaning cycle.
Their poor performance is caused by the nature of the product. Being a flexible material, laundry sheets contain no builders or enzymes, which has a significant negative impact on performance. The size and weight of the sheet also means they have a much lower dose than regular laundry detergents.
In comparison, a single laundry sheet is equivalent to 4 grams of laundry liquid. A laundry liquid generally has a dosage around 50–65 grams. Essentially, laundry sheets simply add fragrance to a load of washing.
Over the years we've uncovered a number of shonky commercially-made products that don't perform any better than cheaper all-natural alternatives, like this well-known brand's carpet cleaner with the same powerful dirt-removal capabilities as tap water. Which brings us to the topic of homemade laundry detergents.
A few minutes with a popular search engine will bring up any number of recipes for homemade laundry detergents, typically containing ingredients such as borax, grated soap, citric acid (lemon juice), bicarbonate of soda, washing powder and/or essential oils.
DIY your detergent and you're not forking over your hard-earned cash to big laundry so it can save you money, and as you can leave out phosphates, perfumes and other chemicals, your DIY detergent is likely to be better for the environment and people with sensitive skin.
However, as there are as many detergent recipes as there are missing socks at the end of a wash cycle, it's not practical for us to include them in our tests, so we can't tell you how a homemade laundry detergent will perform or, by extension, how they compare to their store-bought brethren.
DIYing your laundry detergent is relatively cheap and easy though, so if it's something you're interested in exploring then there's really very little reason not to grab a bucket, roll up your sleeves and give it a try. We'd love to hear how you get on.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.