The everyday laundry detergent should be a tough, all-fabric cleaner that does as well on a baby's burp cloths and leaky diaper stains as it does on his big brother's collared polo shirts.
Powders generally outperform liquids, but it's a preference thing.
Here's the scoop on laundry detergent to help you decide whether liquid or powder is better for your family's wash day loads.
How much detergent should you use? The answer varies by load.
When reading the product directions, keep in mind that, because laundering conditions differ from home to home and from load to load, package recommendations should be considered only a starting point for determining proper amounts.
The amount of detergent you use will depends on water hardness (the harder the water, the more detergent needed), the amount of soil (more soil requires more detergent), and the water temperature (cooler water requires more detergent).
The hotter the water, the more effective the detergent will be.
When using cold water for washing, increase the amount of detergent to one-and-a-half to two times the recommended amount.
Detergent works by loosening dirt and gunk from fabrics. Then it holds the removed dirt in the wash water until it can be rinsed away.
If you use too little detergent, clothes can becone dull and dingy, white items may turn gray or yellowed, body soils are left on cuffs and collars, and lint isn't held in the water until it is rinsed away; instead, it's redeposited on clothes.
You might also notice greasy-looking stains because, if you regularly use too little detergent, it allows gunk to build up on the outer tub of the washer. (Read up on washing machine cleaning here.)
These soils then wash off and redeposit on other loads. Ick. Err the other way.
Using less hot water can save you money on your energy bills. A detergent created specifically for cool (75 degrees F) or cold (60 degrees F) water has cleansing enzymes designed to work better in cold water.
If this is your go-to laundry temperature for many loads, choose a cold water detergent. This way, you won't be needing to use more of the product than the recommended amount to get clothes clean.
Now that you know how detergents work, how do you know which brands really get the dirty jobs done?
A recent Consumer Reports study ranked the top five detergent brands by price, cost per load, brightening abilities, and stain removal performance. They are:
Beware the laundry pod - those all-in-ones, squishy packs that are so convenient to toss into the washing machine and go, no measuring required - if you have children under six years old.
As you have undoubtably noticed, laundry companies are taking out ads on television and in print to remind parents that these colorful plastic packs are very attractive to children, and as a result should be kept well out of your child's reach.
Poison control centers nationwide received 12,594 reports of children age 5 and younger ingesting or inhaling the pods or getting pod contents on their skin or in their eyes, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Finally, remember that even the best detergent can't make up for corner-cutting on wash day.
It's still important to separate lights, dark clothes and white clothes, pre-treat stains before you wash, and take care not to overloaded your washing machine. I the clothes can't move around freely, there isn't a detergent anywhere that can get them clean.