Coming Clean With the Truth About the Best Detergents

How to Save on Laundry DetergentOne of the earliest signs of the arrival of soap in the civilized world dates to the Babylonians of 2800 B.C. Too bad for all those ancient homemakers, though, who would have to wait another 47 centuries (give or take a few spin cycles) before they could use the suds to easily do the family laundry.

When Procter & Gamble introduced Tide in 1943, consumer response was immediate; stores had to limit how much of the stuff folks could buy. In its first 21 years, P&G tweaked Tide's formula at least 22 times in search of detergent perfection.

In the 21st Century we're still searching for bubbly bliss: a cleanliness that, if not next to godliness, at least approaches the divine. In that spirit, we here at the Savings Experiment have rubbed and scrubbed our way through all the research we could find. When it comes to clean clothes (and clean dishes, for that matter), we'd rather not settle for second-best soap ... or watch our hard-earned cash wash down the drain, either.

If there are secrets we've gleaned for washing machine success, we're about to come clean with them in this latest installment of the Savings Experiment.


As a recent New York Times piece points out, there are two reasons why you need less soap than you think, no matter which brand you prefer. First, the new washing machines are built to use far less water than older models. And second: Many of today's detergents are concentrated, so a little bit goes a long way.

What's more, pouring on excess detergent doesn't necessarily mean your clothes will get any cleaner. If you take the example of a dishwasher, you're well advised to use half the amount of soap the manufacturer recommends. The reason: More detergent leads to more wear and tear on your appliance. Harder water will require a bit more detergent, but in general, you can always get away with less, and still get clean. As far as clothes go, we recommend experimenting with a non-risky sample load to see what fraction of detergent you can cut back, and still get those sparkling clothes -- anywhere from one-eighth to one-half of the usual amount should do it.

Meanwhile, perhaps you've figured out what the detergent purveyors already know: It's easier to waste detergent when you have to pour such concentrated amounts in the washer. Method Products has released a new detergent with a pump dispenser to ensure exact dosages for your dirties; they found that a whopping 53% of people fail to use the recommended amount of detergent per washload. Most folks take a blind guess, or simply fill the cap to the top. With Method's product, four pumps equals one load. Simple.


There are a lot of things I wouldn't do as an adult the way I did them as a teenager: driving a car's a great example. (Ask my dad how I once shed the door handle off his Cadillac backing it out of the garage too fast.) But here's a scary truth: Most of us, having learned how to wash clothes as teenagers, haven't changed our habits a bit. Like, y'know, how totally bogus, dude.

Time and Tide changed in 2000 when Procter & Gamble took another big step forward in laundry detergent history. They developed a technique to compact two or three times as much cleaning power into the same amount of liquid detergent. You can probably guess how that works: The concentrated power means your wallet gets cleaned out from using excess detergent, or the wrong amount.

We covered some money-saving steps above, but are there foolproof steps to determine how much detergent you should use? Here's what our research found:

a) First, look inside your washer after each use . I f you're seeing suds at the end of the machine's cycle, you're using too much detergent.

b) The harder the water, the more soap you can use; softer water requires less soap.

c) Lightly soiled clothing will get clean with less detergent.


It's surprising how many consumers still do this, yet today's detergents don't work more effectively when you use more than the needed amount. So unless you like faded colors, more gunk inside your machine, and premature mechanical failure, take heed not to pour on the liquid. Instead ...

e) Use those cap lines. On P&G products, for example, "2" washes a medium-sized load just fine. Can't see the lines? Get out a Sharpie and mark them on the outside of the cap. Remember, as we pointed out earlier, you can probably get away with even less soap.

There's even a right way to put clothes in your washer, according to . For a top loader, a general rule of thumb is to lay clothes loosely inside the washer until they reach the top of the agitator. For a front loader, fill it up with minimal compression of the clothes.


This data comes courtesy of; the average American family washes almost 400 loads of laundry each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But even if you do less than that, your bills still add up for electricity and laundry products.

Assuming 400 loads each year, let's say you use Tide Coldwater at an estimated 37 cents per load

50 oz bottle----26 loads
400 divided by 26 loads = 15.3 bottles per year
$9.62 per bottle x 15.3 bottles = $147 per year

You spend $147 if you are using the detergent efficiently as it is
recommended on the label -- but far more, obviously, if you overpour by as much as 25% ($36.75 on detergent, plus wear and tear on your machine).


For those so inclined to spend a lot up front to save a lot down the line, General Electric Co.'s top-of-the-line Profile front-load washer offers to take on all dosing decisions itself. The SmartDispense feature, adding $600 to the cost of the machine, holds up to six months' worth of detergent and allocates the right amount for each load, taking the detergent concentration level and the amount of clothes into account.

Of course, that doesn't answer the question "Which detergent should I put into this fancy contraption?" As it turns out, the original brand of laundry detergent still garners the highest marks: Tide Coldwater Liquid Laundry Detergent receives the best reviews overall from experts and consumers. Even though Tide Coldwater and some other Tide products cost more than many competitive brands, it's unparalleled at removing tough stains. By washing in cold water, colors remain bright and energy bills are reduced. Tide Coldwater is available in two fragrances as well as for HE (high-efficiency) washers.

We found the most credible review for Tide Coldwater Liquid Laundry Detergent at , where editors compare 44 detergents using nine common stains. We also read a good number of consumer reviews at .

Tide Coldwater Liquid Laundry Detergent pros:
* Excellent stain removal
* Available in two fragrances
* Washing in cold water reduces energy bills

Tide Coldwater Liquid Laundry Detergent cons:
* Expensive (*Est. 37 cents per load)
* Not available in fragrance-free
* Not environmentally friendly

Best HE laundry detergent: Tide HE With Bleach Alternative Liquid Laundry Detergent is specially
formulated for HE washers. This low-sudsing detergent is a top performer at removing stains in one expert review that compares 13 HE detergents. Although this detergent receives mixed reviews from consumers, many agree it gets stains out in the first washing and keeps whites white. It is only available in Tide's original scent. If you want to wash the majority of your laundry in cold water to reduce energy bills, Tide Coldwater Liquid Laundry Detergent costs about the same and is specially
formulated for cold water.

Best green laundry detergent: If you want to wash your laundry using a more eco-friendly product, Seventh
Generation Natural 2X Concentrated Liquid Detergent costs about the same and works in standard or HE washers.

Seventh Generation uses vegetable-based cleaning agents instead of petroleum-based compounds to clean clothes, which may appeal to eco-conscious consumers. This detergent, which is sold in liquid or powder forms, also works in both standard and high-efficiency washing machines (1 ounce is the recommended amount in HE washers). In comparison tests, Seventh Generation falls in the middle when it comes to cleaning, but for many, the slight loss in performance is an acceptable tradeoff for a green detergent. It's also available in two scents as well as a Free & Clear formula (which contains no dyes or fragrances) for those with sensitive skin.

Seventh Generation Natural 2x Concentrated Liquid pros:
* No phosphates or petroleum-based ingredients
* Similar cleaning to conventional detergents
* For standard or HE machines
* Fragrance- and dye-free

Seventh Generation Natural 2x Concentrated Liquid cons:
* Expensive (*Est. 36 cents per load)
* May be hard to find
* Doesn't clean quite as well as the very best detergents

For more details on how the various brands stack up, check out the results we found at .


High-efficiency detergents are engineered as environmentally friendly, generating far fewer suds during the wash cycle, which means that the rinse cycles run shorter. In theory, this saves you on water and electricity bills. Also, HE detergents are more concentrated, so a smaller amount should work to wash clothes. While more expensive than standard detergents, HE detergents last longer and are a necessary with newer HE washing machines.

Win High Performance Sport Detergent, at 64 cents per load, claims to remove odors and stains. It works on odor but is unimpressive on stains, according to Consumer Reports . Tide promises its TotalCare, which costs 45 cents per load, protects colors and fights stains -- and it did well at protecting the color of several cotton dresses after 30 washes. But Tide's 2X Ultra Coldwater detergent protected color comparably and cleaned better for far less, Consumer Reports states. And whichever detergent you buy, be aware that brighteners for whiter-looking whites can over-whiten cream-colored fabrics and turn dark colors gray.


Knowing what my undies look like BEFORE they hit the wash, I don't enjoy the thought of skipping detergent a whole lot. Still, some people insist you can get by without any detergent at all -- including one detergent maker. Seventh Generation co-founder, Jeffrey Hollender wonders why more people haven't stumbled upon laundry's big, dirty secret: "You don't even need soap to wash most loads," he says. The agitation of washing machines often does the job on its own.

Some folks have reported surprising success going soapless. Minor stains and grimy socks alike can come clean this way, and you may have better success with whites if you line-dry them; dryer heat may reset residual stains into clothes. However, some folks also report -- as I suspected! -- that underwear needed a second washing (for a variety of reasons ...). So in this case, water and time consumed in a laundry room may negate any detergent cost savings.

Those sensitive to perfumes and dyes may find this method a big boon. Again, we suggest experimenting with one low-risk load to see how clean and fresh your clothes get.


What have we learned then when it comes to detergents and savings? Let's sum up our newly-won laundry acumen below:

a) Use less soap than you think you need and don't overpour.
b) Tide Coldwater earns high marks for its cleAning power in standard machines.
c) Tide HE With Bleach Alternative Liquid Laundry Detergent and Tide's 2X Ultra coldwater rank best for use in HE machines.
d) Seventh Generation Natural 2X Concentrated Liquid Detergent is the best green alternative on the market.
e) You can get your clothes clean without any laundry detergent at all; this works best with lightly-soiled clothes that have no acute odor issues.

Of course, we could go through thousands of loads and never learn all the secrets you've picked up over countless years of washing and drying. Please share what you've learned with us in the comments section, and remember: No matter how bad you think you've got it with six loads of Monday morning laundry, the Babylonians had it far worse.
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