You’ve heard the terms laundry detergent and laundry soap before, probably assuming they refer to the same products. I know I did. But it turns out they’re far from the same, each boasting multiple differences.
As soon as I heard they were different cleaning products, I knew I had to dig a little deeper. I had to find out what the actual differences are between these two clothes cleaners. Here’s what I found out.
Laundry soap vs detergent: What’s the difference?
Laundry detergent refers to a marketed product that arose during the first half of the twentieth century during the Great Depression and a series of world wars that made soap a precious commodity. It’s usually full of obscure, hard-to-pronounce, and harmful ingredients that comprise surfactants, dyes, synthetic fragrances, bleach, and sulfates. (Although, to be fair, multiple brands are now attempting gentle, eco-friendly detergent formulas.)
Laundry soap, on the other hand, is usually less mainstream. It’s an all-natural and biodegradable cleaner that’s made by mixing animal fat or vegetable oil with alkali salts and similar natural ingredients to wash away stains. Any fragrances are all-natural essential oils, though the best are fragrance free.
Laundry soaps and laundry detergents are made to do the same thing: clean clothes. They work in essentially the same way, by molecules in the ingredients attaching to the dirt and then rinsing away with the dirt in the water.
But even though they have the same purpose and work in the same way doesn’t mean they’re the same. Because laundry detergent and laundry soap are distinctly different products, you should know how they’re different before you commit to doing decades of laundry with one or the other.
The differences can be split into six categories. Let’s dive in.
One of the main differences between soap and detergent is the ingredient list. Soap uses natural and biodegradable ingredients that won’t irritate your skin or harm the environment, including alkalis and lye.
Detergent, on the other hand, typically uses synthetic and man-made chemicals, such as phosphates, parabens, chlorine, and sodium lauryl sulfate and other substances that increase the water’s surface tension, which helps lift stains from fabrics. These chemicals have a harmful effect on the environment, causing algal blooms and hormone imbalances in aquatic ecosystems. They can also pose a risk to human health. Certain ingredients are more likely to cause cancer and reproductive problems. More often, they can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions, even triggering asthma attacks in some cases.
Luckily, with increased awareness of these issues, many detergent brands are exploring safe, eco-friendly formulas. You can find some of the best in my article about ethical laundry detergents.
Soap and detergent perform differently depending on the type of water they’re used in. Soap performs terribly in hard water. It reacts poorly with the chemicals found in hard water, so it can’t do its job properly.
Detergent, however, works well in hard or soft water, so you won’t have a problem no matter what type of water your home has.
Water temperature makes a significant difference in how soap and detergent perform.
Soaps need warm water to wash clothes. The hotter the better in this department. If the water isn’t warm enough, there could be some soap scum left over on your clothes. Detergent cleans clothes in any temperature.
One of the main differences between soap and detergent is how well they both clean clothes. While they’re both designed to do this, the ingredients they use affect their stain removal power.
Detergent is the better option for this, as the ingredients are specifically designed for washing clothes as effectively as possible. As effective as soap is at getting dirt and stains out of clothes, it doesn’t touch the power detergent offers. All those harsh chemicals take out stains like tiny nukes in your laundry room. But you don’t necessarily need them for tough stains. Read my article about laundry detergent substitutes to find out how to treat stains without toxins.
While soap and detergent are designed to do the same thing, the different ingredients they use mean they’ll function differently. Soaps rinse from your clothes better than synthetic cleaners, depending on water temperature and quality of course, and they shouldn’t leave any soap scum residue behind, which can be an issue with certain detergents.
Detergents also have fragrances that cling to your clothes, which can then be absorbed by your skin. If your skin is sensitive, this residue and fragrance cause irritation, and possibly even allergic reaction.
What we put into our washing machines has a significant impact on the environment because that water doesn’t just disappear. It goes into treatment plants, rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. Laundry detergent is particularly bad for the environment, thanks to its synthetic chemicals. As effective as these are at cleaning clothes, they wreak havoc on waterways and aquatic life. Delicate ecosystems can be destroyed, and species threatened.
The main difference between this and soap is that laundry soaps use biodegradable and natural ingredients. They won’t cause nearly as much damage to the environment.
Detergent vs laundry soap: Who wins?
You’re likely wondering what’s better between laundry soaps and detergents. I really can’t answer that question for you—it depends on your priorities. Laundry soap is made out of natural ingredients and is much better for the environment, both in production and application. Soaps need much less processing, so there’s less air and water pollution created during the production process. It also doesn’t have the harmful chemicals you find in detergents.
If you don’t want synthetic fragrances or chemicals that irritate sensitive skin and can cause cancer, and don’t want to harm the environment, soap is the better option for you.
That’s not to say detergents don’t have anything positive going for them, despite the chemical ingredients. They offer much better stain removal and are much better at cleaning clothes.
If natural and plant-based ingredients aren’t a priority, and you’d rather focus on cleaning power, laundry detergents are what you need, even though with a bit of creativity you can achieve this with baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and other eco-safe products you probably already have around the house.
What to look for in the laundry aisle
You might think choosing between laundry soaps and detergents would be easy. It should be as simple as looking at the packaging and seeing what it says, right? If only that was the case. Some detergents advertise themselves as soaps, even though they’re not.
The best thing to do is check the ingredients. As I explained above, there’s often a large difference between what’s used to make these cleaners. When in doubt about an ingredient, plug it into the search bar on the Environmental Working Group’s website. They grade products and substances for safety to humans and the environment.
It’s also worth noting that a few other cleaners have begun to emerge, with a few growing in popularity. Detergent sheets are one of the more notable of these, as they’re a more eco-friendly cleaner than other options. You can check out my list of the best laundry sheets for more information.
Wrapping it up
As it turns out, there’s a difference between laundry detergents and laundry soaps. Despite this, both do a great job at cleaning clothes.
That’s the only similarity the two products will have, however. From ingredients to eco-friendliness, there’s next to nothing in common between them.
The next time you’re at the store, give the options a better look and actually check the ingredients. If you want to make better product choices, avoid synthetic ingredients, and lead a more sustainable lifestyle, take a few minutes to do a bit of research.
Your skin, clothes, and the environment will thank you for it.