How Do Popular Detergents Stack Up? We Compare Liquid, Powder, Pods, & Sheets
With so many different choices of suds for your laundry, it can be hard to find the best kind of detergent. We're going to go over the pros and cons of each type of detergent and how they stack up against relative-newcomer - concentrated dissolving laundry sheets.
It might come as a surprise to many, but laundry detergent isn’t just soap. Soap is a surfactant, which reduces the surface tension of a liquid to increase the wetness of a surface for a deeper clean—and surfactants are just one of the components of detergents. They also contain “builders,” which are water softeners that prevent soap scum from forming, and some have bleaches for stains that can be oxidized (usually plant-based) and/or enzymes to break down tough stains from proteins, fats, starches, and plants. We’ve come a long way from the first creation of synthetic laundry detergent in 1933 by James Gamble and William Procter of the company Dreft. Yet, not all advancements have had our health and the environment in mind, as shown by the vast amounts of detergents that don’t meet the EPA’s Safer Choice Standard.
Knowing all of this might make deciding the best detergent for your home all the more confusing, but read on and we’ll investigate the most popular detergent types.
We’ll start this list by looking at the first commercially-available type of detergent. While people used washing powder in the late 19th Century, it was essentially crushed soap. In 1907, Persil, created by German company Henkle, was the first washing powder that incorporated bleach made from an oxidized salt. While Persil was much more effective than soap alone, it eventually fell out of favor for synthetic materials—starting with Dreft detergent that launched in 1947—as it was less susceptible to hard water. While powdered detergent formula has evolved since the 40s, is it enough to make it the best choice for today?
One of the most significant benefits that powdered detergent has sustained is its packaging. Since it is dry it is more shelf-stable (and takes up less space on shelves) than liquids and pods. Powder's light weight makes it much less cumbersome for the user and the environment with regard to CO2 emissions created during transport. Additionally, its packaging is more eco-friendly since it often comes in a cardboard box instead of plastic. As for its cleaning prowess, it works well on mud stains, grass, and bloodstains.
While powder detergent certainly has its bonuses, there are a lot of detractors to the medium. From an ease-of-use standpoint, though the cardboard box doesn’t require much storage, it does not pour well, which can cause a mess as you measure the powder out with a separate container.
Minor inconvenience aside, the biggest detractor to this non-natural, artificially-fragranced detergent is that it does not dissolve well in cold water. So, it is not the best detergent for linen sheets, nor the best detergent for bamboo sheets, and especially not the best detergent for silk sheets, which all need to be washed in moderate temperatures. Yet, because it dissolves so poorly in cold water, not only does it leave a soapy film on your clothes - undissolved crystals left over time can clog your washing machine. Horrifyingly, if you have a septic system, sodium sulfate from leftover detergent can form solids and plug your tank.
Hardware catastrophes aside, since the powder is prone to leaving a leftover film, it can often necessitate an extra rinse, which wastes water and is harsh on clothes. Due to its poor performance in cold water, perhaps we should look at liquid detergent instead.
Cold-water performance is certainly where liquid detergent shines—since it contains water, it dissolves easily in all temperatures. Where powdered detergent is best on mud, grass, and bloodstains, its liquid counterpart is excellent on oil and grease stains.
That’s not to say that it is not without its faults. Due to its heft from containing water—and the fact that it comes in plastic jugs—liquid detergent creates a large carbon footprint during transport and is not sustainable. Whereas powdered detergent is compact and light-weight, liquid detergent is bulky and cumbersome, making it less accessible for elderly and disabled people to use.
There are also other difficulties of use with liquid detergent. The messy fluid quickly pours out of the jugs and makes it easy to add too much to your laundry. If an excess of detergent is used, it can cause the suds to float to the top and re-deposit dirt back onto your clothes, or make a soapy film on them. You get the same effect if you use regular detergent in high-efficiency machines—it can cause an overflow of suds and leave clothes soapy, or worse, even stop the machine from working. Since some of the significant disadvantages of liquid detergent are caused by measuring, detergent pods might be a better solution.
While pods have been growing in popularity due to their convenience, they were at the forefront of our minds as stories about people (not just children) eating them were all over the news in 2018. Their deceptive gummy-candy appearance aside, there are some advantages to this type of detergent.
Since they are pre-measured, there’s no need to worry about making a mess or overloading your machine, as was the concern with liquid detergent. Like powdered detergent, these easy-to-use pods are light since they contain less water than liquid detergent, which helps reduce emissions during transport and makes them more shelf-stable.
While pods so far seem to be the best option of those mentioned above, they also have drawbacks. Just like the prior three detergents, pods still use non-natural chemicals and fragrances—only five brands of pods out of the 2,233 types of detergents listed on the EPA’s Safer Choice Standard database meet their standards. While the ingredients for those few brands meet the EPA’s requirements, all pods are nonetheless housed in unsustainable plastic containers. Speaking of containers, though there were attempts at child-proofing them, as of 2019, Poison Control had received 72,947 calls regarding detergent pods—roughly 40 per-day the first six years they were marketed in the United States.
As you can see, each of the three types of detergents listed above has different advantages and disadvantages. By contrast, laundry detergent sheets, which are gaining in popularity, seek to both incorporate the pros of the aforementioned detergents while leaving the cons behind. Are laundry detergent sheets better for the environment and ourselves?
Washing machine detergent sheets consist of highly-concentrated detergent housed in biodegradable resin. They are formed as paper-thin strips, so you can place them alongside your clothes in the machine just like a laundry pod. Both pods and sheets have the convenience of no-mess use, but unlike pods, you can cut detergent sheets into pieces if you would like to use less for a smaller load of laundry. Since they are completely dry, laundry detergent sheets don’t risk popping. You can even pack them as travel detergent sheets; as close as the laundromat, or as far away as another country that might have detergents that would irritate your skin.
In addition to being versatile enough to be great detergent sheets for travel, they also work in all water temperatures, so they are the best detergent for white sheets, bamboo, linen, and silk, which all require either very hot or cold water. Being able to wash sheets in cold water is not only beneficial for delicate sheets but is also environmentally friendly, as heating water accounts for 90% of the energy a washing machine uses.
Washing detergent sheets have numerous other sustainable features. For one, unlike liquid detergent and pods, Nantucket Footprint's laundry detergent sheets are packaged in biodegradable, child-proof containers. Depending on the brand you select, the best laundry detergent sheets can be naturally-scented with essential oils instead of headache-inducing chemicals, and its ingredients can all fall under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Safer Choice list or the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database. Knowing how safe eco laundry detergent sheets are, you might be wondering if you can DIY laundry detergent sheets yourself. While it is easy to find online how to make laundry detergent sheets, unfortunately, you would need to use harsh liquid or bar-form detergents as the base, as you can’t replicate the eco-safe ingredients at home. So, in all honesty, it would be more cost-effective and sustainable to purchase laundry sheets detergent than it would be to make them at home.
By analyzing the pros and cons of conventional detergent types above, we’ve been able to analyze where detergent sheets fit into the big picture. While sheets encompass all of the advantages of the other three types of detergent, the downsides of traditional detergents are what make laundry sheets shine, as they are not only more conscious of your health with safe ingredients, but also the environment. If everyone in the United States switched from plastic-contained detergents to washer detergent sheets, it would save more than 600 million jugs from landfills annually—you can do your part by making the change.