Laundry detergents are the key cleaning product used in laundry.  Their job is to remove stains, dirt, and odors from washable laundry items.  Whether your laundry is bedsheets, athletic uniforms, jeans, work uniforms, dress clothes, or kids’ play clothes, detergent does most of the work in cleaning.

Laundry detergents are added to the wash water at the start of the laundry process, either in a washing machine drum, a washing machine dispenser, or in a basin, tub, or sink where laundering is done by hand.

What’s in a laundry detergent?

Today’s detergents range from simple to very complex.

All detergents contain surfactants, or surface active agents, that work with water to loosen dirt and stains and lift them off laundry.  These materials work much like shampoo for your hair or soap in the bath or shower.  The concentration of surfactant varies between detergents—some have very little, while for some, surfactant is most of the formula.

Some detergents contain additional cleaning ingredients, such as enzymes (proteins that help digest specific types of stains), bleaches (which react with stains to remove color), and ingredients that tie up impurities in the water for best cleaning (water softeners, soil suspension agents, and chelants).  While most contain fragrance and color for aesthetics, some are available without these ingredients.

There’s so many kinds!  How are detergents different from each other?

Some detergents can be used in hand washing, such as detergent bars for heavy scrubbing and liquids for washing delicates or wool and silk items.

There are detergents that have been tested by dermatologists to evaluate the skin irritation potential of the product.  These may be suitable for those with sensitive skin; check with your physician to see if these may be right for you.

If you use a high-efficiency washing machine, the machine manufacturer may recommend the use of special detergents that foam less.  Check with the manufacturer of your machine for more details and look for this designation on detergents.

Some laundry detergents also deliver other benefits, such as softening, extra fragrance, or bleaching action (powders with color-safe bleach and liquids and packets with added brightener and cleaning agents to whiten fabrics).

In addition, there are “natural” laundry detergents made with plant-based cleaners.  The cleaners are derived from vegetable and plant oils and may also contain plant-based solvents and enzymes to aid in cleaning.

Different forms of laundry detergents

Today’s laundry detergents come in powders, liquids, bars, or packets (also called sachets, pacs or pods).

Powdered detergents perform well on dirt.  They also contain more water softening ingredients, so often work well in hard water.  These detergents sometimes contain oxygen bleaches to improve stain removal and whitening performance.

Liquid detergents perform well overall, but especially well on oily stains.  They typically have more surfactant and less water softener than powders, but some formulas have been developed that work well in many water conditions.

Bars are just like soap bars, but are designed to clean laundry when washed by hand.  Just wet the bar and the laundry and rub the laundry with the soap bar until clean.

Packets are a relatively new form that contain detergent packaged in a water soluble film.  Just toss the packet in your washing machine, and it dissolves to release its cleaning ingredients.  Packets may contain liquid or solid detergent (or even both).  They are quite convenient because they are pre-measured and more portable than liquids or powders.