laundry detergent: Liquid or Powder?

Hand holding powder detergent, surrounded by pods and liquid.

Your everyday laundry detergent should be a tough all-fabric cleaner that works as well on grungy gardening duds as it does on collared polo shirts. 

How much detergent should you use? Reading product labels is a good starting point.

The optimal amount depends on the hardness of your water (the harder the water, the more detergent needed), how dirty the clothing is (more soil requires more detergent), and the wash water temperature (cooler water requires more detergent).

Here's the dirt on detergent to help simplify your washday.

How Laundry Detergent Works

Laundry detergent works by loosening dirt and gunk in fabrics. The removed soil is then held in the wash water until drained. 

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.

When reading the product directions on how much to use, keep in mind that because conditions differ from home to home and from load to load, package recommendations should be considered only a starting point. 

The hotter the water, the more effective the laundry detergent will be. When washing in cold water, you'll need to increase the amount of detergent to one-and-a-half to two times the recommended amount.

Or, use a detergent created for cold water. This way, you won't use more of the product than needed to clean clothes. 

If you notice greasy-looking stains and gunk building up on the outer tub of the washer, you might be using too little detergent. When you see the ick, clean the washing machine and adjust your detergent amount for future loads.

Liquid Versus Powder Detergent

Laundry detergent powders generally outperform liquids in industry testing. That said, each detergent formulation has its benefits and drawbacks. Here's a look at each:

Laundry liquids: All-purpose liquid detergents are effective on food, greasy, and oily stains. And because they are fluid, 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 forceful in lifting 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 detergent packets - called pods, pacs, or packs - are concentrated detergent in single-use enclosed packages. 

But they are expensive to use and may need two packs to clean really dirty clothes or extra-large loads. This is because individual packages are pre-measured for average soils in average size loads.

Ultra detergents:  Come in smaller packages yet offer the same cleaning power as familiar products in larger containers. You need less of an ultra detergent than with an unconcentrated product. 

Combination detergents: These are 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.

Wash-Day Helpers

Prewash stain removers: Available in stick, liquid, aerosol, or pump-spray forms, these products go directly on a stain or spot to loosen the grime before washing.

Chlorine bleaches: These liquids boost laundry detergent while cleaning, whitening, sanitizing, and deodorizing laundry; safe on whites, colorfast cotton, linen, and washable synthetics.

Oxygen bleaches: These kinder, gentler bleaches are safe for most washable colored fabrics.

Wash Day Helpers

Bleach converts soils into colorless, soluble particles easily removed by detergents and 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.

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) work best to maintain whiteness, not restore it. When using oxygen bleach, add it directly to the wash water before dumping in the clothes. Oxygen bleaches are most effective in warm-to-hot water.

Ready, Set, Wash

  • Check clothing labels for care recommendations.
  • Separate whites from colors to keep dyes from bleeding onto lighter-colored fabrics.
  • Separate heavily soiled items from lightly soiled clothes so you can wash very dirty things on their own.
  • Adjust the recommended detergent amount (per label) if soil or water conditions are not average.

Good Detergent Can't Overcome Bad Laundry Practices

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 overload your washing machine.

If the clothes can't move around freely, there isn't a detergent anywhere that can get them clean.