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. And once you've chosen, how much detergent should you use?
The answer varies by load. The amount of detergent will depend 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).
This guide to understanding and using laundry detergent effectively can help simplify the process of choosing and using detergent.
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 become 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.
Powders generally outperform liquids, but it's a preference thing.
Each detergent formulation has its benefits and drawbacks. Here's a bit more about each:
Laundry liquids: All-purpose liquid detergents are especially effective on food, greasy and oily stains.
And as liquids, they can easily double as a spot and stain pre-treater. The biggest drawback of liquids is a tendency to use too much per load, which wastes money and can leave a residue on clothes.
Laundry powders: All-purpose laundry powders are ideal for general washday soils and stains and are usually less expensive to use per load.
They are especially forceful on lifting out clay and ground-in dirt, making them ideal for children's play clothes.
Powders can be problematic, however, if you have very cold water or only use cold water for washing as they may not dissolve completely.
Laundry pods: Single-load laundry packets - commonly referred to as pods, pacs, or packs - are an innovation containing highly concentrated detergent in a single-use enclosed package. These are the most straightforward, most convenient formulation.
But they are expensive to use, and two packs may be needed to clean filthy clothes or extra-large loads thoroughly. This is because individual packages are pre-measured for use on average soils in average size loads.
Ultra detergents: Most liquid and powder detergents are now concentrated. They come in smaller packages, yet offer the same amount of cleaning power as the familiar products in larger containers.
You need less ultra detergent than with an unconcentrated product. Read and follow the label instructions and use the measuring cap or scoop that comes with the product.
Combination detergents: These are the one-stop-shopping products - one detergent that does two jobs. Look for: liquid or powder detergents with built-in fabric softeners, and powder detergents with color-safe bleach.
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 depend on water hardness (the harder the water, the more detergent needed), the amount of soil (more soil requires more detergent), and the water temperature (colder water requires more detergent), and the water temperature (cooler water requires more detergent.)
In short 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. Or choose a detergent created specifically for cool (75 degrees F) or cold (60 degrees F) water, which contains cleansing enzymes designed to work better in cold water.
This way, you won't need to use more of the product than the recommended amount to get clothes clean.
Bleach converts soils into colorless, soluble particles that are easily removed by detergents, then carried away in the wash water.
Bleach can also brighten and whiten fabrics and help remove stubborn stains.
Household bleaches: Sodium hypochlorite bleaches (also called chlorine or liquid household bleach) are the more powerful laundry bleaches; they disinfect, as well as clean and whiten.
They work on many whites and colorfast washable - but not on wools or silks.
For best results, add 5 minutes after the wash cycle has begun to agitate to avoid destroying enzymes and fluorescent whiteners in the detergent.
Oxygen bleaches: Oxygen (color-safe) bleaches are gentler, working safely on all washable fabrics.
They work best in maintaining whiteness, not in restoring it.
For oxygen bleach, add directly to the wash water before the clothes are added.
Don't pour powdered bleach directly on wet clothes. Oxygen bleaches are most effective in warm-to-hot water.
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.
If the clothes can't move around freely, there isn't a detergent anywhere that can get them clean.