Cleaning Supplies: Laundry Detergents

The number of different types of laundry detergent is truly astonishing: powder, liquids, tablets, plastic things that dissolve in the wash, detergent to be put in the machine, detergent to put in the dispenser, regular detergent and ‘ultra’ detergent which is a stronger formulation, so you can use less.

In addition to the formulation, consider the type of clothes you will be washing and how dirty they are. For protein stains, such as egg, blood and vomit, a biological detergent, which contains enzymes, is particularly effective. Detergents that have been specially formulated for whites usually contain oxygen bleaches and/or optical brightening agents. While they will brighten whites, they can cause fading or spotting if used on coloured fabrics.

Detergents formulated for cleaning coloured clothes contain no optical brighteners or bleaches. Some even milder formulations are designed for very dark colours, but it is far better to use a ‘mild’ detergent specially formulated for washing wools and other delicate fabrics such as washable silk. They generally contain no brighteners or bleaches and are often unperfumed.


We are all becoming much more aware of how many chemicals we use in the home, and it is certainly worth considering an ‘eco’ product if you worry about your effect on the environment. Eco detergents are usually manufactured using plant-based formulations and do not contain petrochemical ingredients, chlorine bleach and phosphates. Some do not contain enzymes or optical brighteners.

All the above come in powder or liquid form (sometimes as tablets or capsules respectively). Powder is generally put into the powder dispenser of the machine; liquid is put into a ‘dosing ball’ and placed at the back of the machine on top of the clothes (but follow the manufacturer’s instructions). Whether you choose powder or liquid, it is important to use enough detergent. An inadequate quantity of detergent means clothes will not wash as well. In hard-water areas, there is also a danger that minerals will build up on fabrics, causing colours to fade, whites to look dingy and fabrics to feel stiff and harsh to the touch.


Powder detergents. For large families and people who do a lot of washing, powder is the most economical option because it is cheap, efficient and goes a long way. It is particularly effective at dealing with ground-in dirt, but it can cause fading and, if not dissolved properly, spots on coloured fabrics (this is more likely at low-temperature washes). Low-temperature washes in hard-water areas can also cause a built-up of powder which can clog washing machines and drains, and in the worst cases causes a thick white sludge that sets like concrete.

Liquid detergents. These are in effect ready-dissolved detergent in water. They work out more expensive than powder detergents because you are paying for that water, but they are easier to use in cold-water washes because they will not spot coloured fabrics. They are particularly effective on grease stains and food marks, and can be used neat on these stains before washing.

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Tablets. These are concentrated powder in tablet form and are designed to be used either in the machine’s powder dispenser or placed in a net or some other proprietary dispenser directly on top of clothes. They come ready-measured, so you will not use too much detergent and are useful in small flats or houses with limited storage, but they are not versatile: they cannot be used for pre-wash soaking, treating stains or washing by hand. And they are expensive.

Liquid capsules. These are made from concentrated liquid detergent in soluble plastic capsules. Like tablets, they come ready-measured and are useful when storage space is short. But they are expensive and cannot be used for pre-wash soaking or washing by hand. The detergent in them is concentrated and can irritate the skin if the capsules split.


Fabric conditioners. Liquid fabric conditioners, which are added to the wash, contain substances that coat the fabric, making it feel softer and plumping up the fibres. As well as softening, they are designed to reduce static and make ironing easier. They are useful in areas where the water is very hard and are particularly effective when washing woollens and man-made fibres that are prone to static. But they can cause skin problems in certain sensitive people, and according to some schools of thought it is not washing powder that clogs up washing machines but fabric conditioner, especially in hard-water areas. Used too often, the coating they leave on fabrics will build up, making the garment feel greasy and reducing absorbency.

Use fabric conditioner when it is really needed. If you live in a soft-water area, you will not need it. Even you live in a hard-water area, you may find that you do not need to use a fabric conditioner for every wash. Do not use on items that are designed to be absorbent, such as tea towels, towels and cotton T-shirts. Used with discretion, fabric conditioners are a useful weapon in the household armoury.


If you have a tumble-dryer, you could forgo liquid fabric conditioner and use fabric conditioner sheets instead, which go in with the load as it is drying. They are especially useful for reducing static on clothes made from synthetic fabrics or when something needs extra softness. Do not use them all the time – use every 3-4 washes to prevent build-up of the product on clothes. A green alternative is tumble-dryer balls. These are spiky rubber balls, which go into the tumble-dryer with the clothes and soften fabrics by friction.

Tags: cleaning supplies, cleaning tips, detergents, laundry cleaning

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