After spending 35 hours on research, squooshing more than 40 fabric swatches through 22 different detergents, talking to two fabric and detergent experts, and petting and sniffing freshly washed wool until we almost had a contact high, we found that Soak is the best detergent for delicates. It’s more than good enough to unseat the old guard, Woolite, which requires rinsing, feels slimy, and costs much more per wash than our pick.
In our tests, cleaning power was roughly equal among the detergents we tried. Our pick stood apart as one of only three no-rinse formulas generally available in the US, which means less work, less water use, and a lower likelihood that you’ll damage your dainty duds with too much handling. Unlike the competition, Soak uses an all-purpose formula that’s great for all fabrics, including wool, cashmere, and silk. It’s also fairly cheap at about a quarter per wash, and its five scents smell good.
Eucalan is a no-rinse detergent that contains lanolin, a natural oil that sheep produce to help waterproof their fleece coats; it also makes woolen garments softer and a touch more hardwearing. Eucalan cleans a bit better than Soak with the same minimum of handling, costs less than Soak at around 16 cents per wash, and also comes in five good scents. The major reason we made Soak our pick instead of Eucalan is Soak’s versatility: You wouldn’t want to use Eucalan on non-woolens, as lanolin tends to attract dirt and grime on other fabrics.
You can also use Tide. Really. You don’t actually need a dedicated delicates detergent; many garments can go in your washer on the delicate cycle with regular detergent, so you have no need to spend more money on fancy detergents if you don’t want to. But there is a caveat here: Tide contains protease, an enzyme that might break down protein-based fibers such as silk and wool. Tide is gentle enough for other delicate fabrics, and if you’re hand washing in the sink, it costs only about five cents per wash. The main reasons it isn’t our top pick are that you can’t use it on all fibers and you must rinse it out—that’s more work, more water, and more risk of damage, all things our top pick helps you avoid. Tide also doesn’t smell as nice as either Soak or Eucalan, but it does come in an unscented variety that we tested as well (Tide Free and Gentle).
There aren’t many places that review (or even talk about) delicates detergent. The few that are out there don’t do side-by-side reviews or use superstition instead of science.1 So we sought out some experts, such as Sean Cormier, assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and head of their textile testing lab, and Jacqueline Sava, founder of Soak. We also delved deep into the literature about the protective coatings on wool, whether you can really wash silk (spoiler: yes!), and my specialty, what’s really in the bottle.
I’m a longtime knitter with a PhD in chemistry, so the chemistry of fibers is something that makes my heart go pitter pat. Way back when the earth was young, I also worked as a preparator in the Textiles Department of the Art Institute of Chicago. So I would say that I’m fairly fluent in fibers. I also speak soap, having written both the Sweethome laundry detergent and dish soap guides.
If you have a lot of fine-fabric pieces, a no-rinse detergent designed to squeeze out and evaporate off fabric could save you a lot of time and effort in hand washing them. It may also help your garments in the long run: rough handling and wringing, especially when wet, can ruin a wool sweater or silk bra. Water destabilizes the chemical structure of protein fibers (wool, silk, cashmere, alpaca, and angora, to name a few) because it interrupts hydrogen bonds that help hold them together. Not having to rinse detergent out of your garments helps protect delicate fibers.
Wool doesn’t like agitation or heat because it’s covered in teeny tiny scales that get can tangled together. The act is called felting or fulling. Ever shrunk a wool sweater to the approximate size of a teddy bear by accidentally throwing it in the dryer? You felted it. This is a one-way street, by the way. Your loss is your teddy bear’s gain.
If you dry-clean your clothes, you may want to consider hand washing instead. Depending what solvent they use, dry cleaning is often somewhere between not-great and horrible for the environment. Here’s a pretty extensive list (pdf) of the solvents that dry cleaners use. The most common is probably perchloroethylene (aka tetrachlorothethylene, or “perc”). According to the EPA, it’s used by around 28,000 dry cleaners in the US, and it is the only toxic compound emitted into the air from the dry cleaning process. It’s also classified as a probably a human carcinogen; it’s not very nice for anyone and even prohibited in some places and situations. There are some more environmentally-friendly options, but they tend to be a) hard to find;2 and b) expensive. So do yourself a favor and skip dry cleaning whenever possible.
However, no one needs delicates detergent. Though you can potentially ruin any delicate garment by tossing it pell-mell into the washer, it may come out fine. Regular detergent was once way too harsh for delicate fibers, but it isn’t anymore (we checked). It does often contain a protein-digesting enzyme called protease, so it’s a risky choice for protein fibers such as 100 percent wool or silk. But if you’re just hand washing delicate pieces, including lingerie, or washing machine-safe things on the delicates cycle, a non-specialty detergent—such as the Tide that won in our best laundry detergent guide and appears as our budget pick here—will work great.
There just aren’t that many delicates detergents out there, so rather than winnow them down, we evaluated and tested all 22 that we could find, including all three no-rinse detergents available in the US.
A good delicates detergent has to get your stuff clean without damaging delicate fibers. The reason you’re pulling your garments out of the regular laundry cycle in the first place is so they don’t get messed up. (For info on what a delicate is, see the “But can I wash it?” section below.) Besides rough handling, what is most likely to damage your delicates is a detergent with a high pH.
Basically, pH is a measure of how acidic or basic a solution is.3 The lower the number, the more acidic something is, with the neutral midpoint, aka water, falling at 7. Historically, soaps and detergents used to be made with lye (aka sodium hydroxide) so they had high pHs, meaning that they were very basic. Tide used to have a pH of around 13, which can cause irreversible damage to not only wool, but spandex and silk as well.
Because of this, one of the first things we did was take the pH of the detergent in some water. And guess what? Except for one very harsh detergent (Forever New granular), every detergent we tested was pH-neutral.
As an eagle-eyed commenter pointed out to us, protein-digesting enzymes called proteases also have the potential to damage protein fibers such as wool and silk. Granted, in much of the research on this topic, scientists used relatively high concentrations of protease to see this damage. Most regular laundry detergents have protease (to get out gravy stains, say), but I couldn’t determine how much. Tide spokesperson Anne Candido told me that the amount of protease in Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid was proprietary, which is business-speak for “we’re never going to tell you.” She did say that the company recommends washing garments marked “Dry Clean Only” or “Dry Clean or Hand Wash” in the version of Tide without protease. (It’s called Tide Simply Clean & Fresh if you’re interested, though we haven’t tested the stuff.) We say to use Soak for 100 percent wool or silk, since it’s protease-free.
Other than that, the things that are most likely to damage your delicates are things you can control yourself. “You’ve got agitation, you’ve got the spin cycle, which would cause abrasion and color loss,” said Sean Cormier, assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Skipping these things by doing a gentle hand wash is really the key to keep your delicates in tip top shape. And when you wash a delicate, you’re not trying to get grass stains out of it, he says. “You’re working on trying to get the odor out, which is really the germs that have built up on that product.” This is why two of our picks are no-rinse detergents: the less you handle your delicates, the better.
Price varies quite a bit for delicates detergent. costing anywhere from 5¢ to 63¢ per wash, and from $6 to $35 for a bottle, depending on how big it is. You don’t want to be washing undies in solutions of gold flakes, but since you only use a delicates detergent probably twice a month at most (and wash your woolens sparingly), that cost spreads itself out quite a bit. What you usually get for more money is a fancier bottle (as with Tocca) or “gourmet” scents.
Cleaning power is not the most important thing in a delicates detergent, since you’re generally trying to get out small amounts of oil and odor from daily wear, not trying to remove chocolate or grass stains. But we tested this anyway, just to make sure there were no wide variations. Most delicates are either protein-based (like silk) or synthetic (like nylon). We hand washed both silk and nylon sebum-stained fabrics from Test Fabrics Inc., following the directions on the bottle for how much to use.4 Some detergents, including no-rinse versions, called for only a teaspoon. Most used around three teaspoons, but Ivory Snow and Woolite suggested using as much as two tablespoons.
The swatches we washed with Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid, Tide Free and Gentle, Woolite, and Ivory Snow came out a bit lighter, but the cleaning difference across them wasn’t big enough for us to make disqualifications on that alone. All were gentle on our swatches (and we didn’t see any immediate damage with the protease-containing ones on the silk swatches). Instead, we eliminated most of them because they weren’t as easy to use as the no-rinse formulas, with one exception: Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid. Our top pick for best laundry detergent, it is basically the placeholder for whatever detergent you use for the rest of your laundry. A breakdown of what we thought of each product is down in The competition.
For silk, the washed swatches were a little lighter than the non-washed control, but there was zero difference in the different detergents. None. Zip. So we concentrated on the nylon swatches instead.
Soak is the best detergent for saving time and effort when you’re hand washing delicate fabrics, wool and silk included. The fact that it cleaned fabric as well as the competition, combined with the no-rinse convenience, affordable price, and range of scents, makes it a standout.
A small amount of detergent stays on the garment, but it does not affect the feel. I’ve used both Soak and Eucalan for years, and I’ve never had a problem with stuff I washed in it feeling stiff or crunchy. According to Jacqueline Sava, the founder of Soak, the company has their detergents tested at a textile lab in Japan, who found that “once Soak is squeezed out and evaporates, less than 5 percent is left over in the fibers (5% of 0.031625%). This is approximately 0.00000158125 mL of surface acting agent.” So while there is a bit of surfactant left over on your clothes, it’s a really small amount.
Not having to rinse out Soak is about half of what made it our pick. Hand washing with a regular detergent means that after a bubble bath, you need to take the garment out of the sink, drain, rinse the suds out of the sink, refill the sink, squish all the water out of the garment, then stick it back in the clean water. And if all the soap isn’t out of the garment, you need to repeat the rinse. With Soak, you skip all this extra handling. All you need to do is add the recommended dose of five milliliters in four liters of water (about a teaspoon in a big sink), let your garment soak, then gently press out the water and lay it flat to dry. Done.
The other major detail that set Soak apart was its versatility, because it can clean more types of fabrics than other no-rinse detergents we tried. Soak was not the cheapest or the best cleaner—Eucalan was. But Eucalan contains lanolin, which is great for wooly garments but can attract dirt on your silk undies. Soak’s cleaning performance was close enough to the best detergents we found, and it’s affordable. (Around 25¢ per wash, Soak’s cost, is in the lower middle of the price range of 5¢ to 63¢ per wash.) Plus it comes in a pretty bottle.
Smell is an important part of any delicates detergent, and Soak’s scent names are…a bit hard to figure out. But fear not! We did smell tests too. Yuzu is a citrusy scent, with a background of ginger or eucalyptus. Lacey smells of delicate jolly ranchers, mostly watermelon and apple. They call the smell of Celebration “inspired by the essence of red rooibos tea” on the website, but we thought it smelled more like a mix of champagne and a clean, linen-y scent. Fig smelled of figs a bit, but more like peaches. Soak also sells an assorted travel pack with two single-use packets of each flavor if you want to test drive a scent before you buy, plus travel sizes of each scent. We thought all of them smelled very good.
It’s unlikely that you can get Soak in a grocery or big-box store, and you definitely can’t find it in your neighborhood bodega. It is pretty available online from Amazon or Soakwash.com. And if you really want to walk into a store and put your mitts on a bottle, you can find it at most local yarn stores. Here’s a handy tool to find yours.
Jacqueline Sava from Soak told me that their fig scent mixture contains phthalates, a type of compound known to cause reproductive harm in animals at high doses, but the FDA says they don’t pose a risk to people in amounts currently used in most products. (Read more in Ingredients of concern below.) The amount you might be exposed to in the fig Soak is vanishingly small (remember, the dose makes the poison), and Sava says that they’re testing a phthalate-free fig formula in their labs right now. Other scents don’t contain phthalates, so if you’re worried, get a different scent. We’ll post an update when Soak finishes their new formula.
If you are washing wool, we like Eucalan. This detergent cleans as well as the rest, plus it is inexpensive, no-rinse, and has lanolin in it to protect woolen fibers.
Sheep naturally have greasy, waterproofing lanolin in their wool. Washing wooly things in a detergent with lanolin helps soften them and strengthens their fibers against wear and tear.
But it does help attract dirt to other fibers, making Eucalan a less versatile detergent than Soak; that’s ultimately why Eucalan didn’t win our top prize.
I did a side-by-side wash with Soak and Eucalan on a wool and silk scarf to literally get a feel for which made the fabric softer. Once my scarf was all laid out and dried, the half washed in Eucalan was a tiny bit softer, and the silk was a smidge shinier. It also cleaned just a titch better than Soak, plus was cheaper per wash at 16¢ versus 25¢. It comes in five scents (and you can actually tell what they are by their names!): jasmine, lavender, grapefruit, eucalyptus, and unscented. It’s also mostly absent from grocery stores and the like, but you can find it in the same places as Soak: online and in yarn stores.
One thing to note: Eucalan does contain methylchloroisothiazolinone, a preservative that causes an allergic rash in about five percent of the population. It’s also a sensitizer, which means if you’re exposed to it over and over, you may develop an allergy to it over time. See our the section Ingredients of concern for more.
Our delicates detergent for general use turns out to be the same as our laundry detergent pick. Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid is the best at cleaning jeans and towels, and it’s a good choice for cleaning spandex and bras, too. Although stains aren’t as much of an issue, Tide will still get your delicates cleaner according to our sebum wash test than any other delicate detergent we tested. It has the same acidity as water, which means it’s relatively gentle and still between half to a tenth of the cost of detergents made specifically for delicates.
But remember that you shouldn’t use Tide for your 100 percent wool or silk garments, since it contains protease. This limitation on its versatility, plus the fact that other detergents are simply easier to use, kept Tide out of our top spot. Unlike our other picks, Tide detergent must be fully rinsed out with water. It’s not meant to sit on clothes. The detergent also had a slightly slimy feel when I used it for hand washing. It was about a half-second of “ew?” before I got over it, so unless you’re very sensitive to that kind of thing, it shouldn’t bother you. And personally, I don’t love the smell. But some people do. C’est la vie.
I’m not crazy about the fact that it’s blue. Dyes in detergents are totally unnecessary; they don’t add anything to how well they clean. (One Procter and Gamble PR person told me they “test well” once.) If either the scent or the dye bothers you, Tide Free and Gentle also cleaned quite well in our tests.
Here are things you should not hand wash: suit jackets or anything with that kind of structure; very delicate beaded or sequined garments; leather. Other than that, go for it.
Personally, I have hand washed even “dry clean only” silk, and it’s come out just fine. But check the label first. If it’s 100 percent silk or wool, be sure to wash it in a detergent without protease. Ditto if it says “Dry Clean Only” or “Hand Wash Only.” And proceed at your own risk there. At least if you take it to the cleaners and they screw it up, you can make them pay for it. You’ll get no such promise in your bathroom sink. Silk does tend to have problems with dyes bleeding, though. If you have a white silk blouse with bright red designs on it, be prepared for it to change to a pink blouse with pink designs after a sink bath. You can always color-test your silk by washing a discreet corner. If it runs, you must succumb; take it to a pro. But if it doesn’t, be smug about the money you just saved.
Detergents made specifically for delicates have pretty much the same ingredients as regular laundry detergent, with a few exceptions. Soak’s are listed here, Eucalan’s are here, and Tide’s are here (pdf).
Things they generally do have:
Water—All the parts of detergent have to be dissolved in something. Life on our planet is water-based, so water it is. (This is known as a solvent in some circles.)
Surfactants—Short for surface active agents, these do the cleaning. A few of the popular ones: sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, lauryl glucoside, lauramine oxide, cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium methyl 2-sulfolaurate, decyl glucoside, etc., etc. Most detergents use more than one surfactant. Here’s a primer on how these work to clean stuff.
This is the end of the “all have it” list. Some detergents have the following:
Enzymes—These are biological-based molecules that help to get certain stains off your clothes. The most common ones in laundry detergent are amylase, which is found in our mouths and breaks down starches; lipases, which break down grease; and proteases, which break down protein (and protein fibers such as wool or silk, to some extent).
Water softeners, or salts—These work by running interference with dissolved minerals in water, which can keep surfactants from cleaning well. Some examples are sodium carbonate, sodium aluminosilicate, and calcium chloride. Basically, if you see something in the ingredient list that’s mineral-based, it’s probably a water softener. Sometimes these can double as “viscosity agents,” which means that they help the detergent from clumping.
Anti-foam agents—Especially in the case of the no-rinse detergents, you don’t want your detergent being too sudsy, which would mean more rinsing. These compounds keep the bubbles to a minimum.
Preservatives—These are important, since they keep bacteria and other nasties from growing in water-based detergents. Preservatives can be anything from alcohols to methylisothiazolinone, and a small amount of people can be allergic. More info on that here.
Fragrance—That dark angel. The FDA says that fragrance mixtures are proprietary, so companies don’t have to say what makes their detergent smell pretty. In some cases, this involves phthalates, a class of chemicals which make hard plastics more flexible. There’s some evidence that these can cause reproductive harm, and you can learn more about that here. A lot of detergents boast on the label that they don’t contain phthalates, so read what you buy if you’re worried about it. One scent of our pick, fig-scented Soak, does contain phthalates, but they’ve got a new formula in testing now without it.
Delicates detergents generally don’t have optical brighteners, bleach alternatives, or polymers, although our budget pick does. More on these compounds here.
Methylisothiazolinone is sometimes used along with methylchloroisothiazolinone. They’re known as MI and MCI, respectively, and are used as preservatives in a lot of cleaning and beauty products. Preservatives are a very important ingredient, because they keep mold and bacteria from growing in the products that we use every day. This has the potential to make us very sick.
Either by itself or in conjunction with MCI, MI can cause allergies or irritation. But it’s also a sensitizer, which means that you can become allergic to it after being exposed over and over again. However, this is a very rare allergy, according to dermatologist Erin Warshaw. Only about 5 percent of the population is allergic to MI, although that number has been increasing, about to 1½ to 2½ times the previous rate from 2011 to 2012. Most of the detergents we tested have MI but our pick Soak and budget pick Tide do not. Eucalan does contain MCI.
Some people also worry about SLS and SLES. They stand for sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium lauryl ethyl sulfate (or sodium laureth sulfate) respectively, and they’re both surfactants. ‘Surfactant’ is short for surface active agent and is something that can make two non-mixable liquids mix. In this case, the surfactant is the cleaning agent, and it grabs the oil, creates a blob around it, and lets it be whisked away by water. (You’ll find a more detailed explanation here.) The concern with these surfactants is not the molecules themselves, but a carcinogenic compound that might be lurking within. It’s called 1,4-dioxane, and it’s a byproduct of making SLS into SLES. In short, there’s such a small amount of it (if any at all) that it’s not a problem unless you wash about 1,000 garments a day, each time with new detergent. And if that’s you, well, you’ve got bigger problems than 1,4-dioxane exposure. For the rest of us, potential exposure is too small to be worrisome.
Phthalates, which you can sometimes find in fragrance mixtures, are also in hundreds of different products. You may have heard about them because there’s been some recent press about getting phthalates phased out of use in children’s toys. How exactly they affect human health, if at all, is not clear. They have caused harm to the reproductive systems of lab animals, but there haven’t been many human studies. CDC researchers have found phthalates (or metabolites) in many people they tested, leading them to say that exposure is “widespread.” The FDA says that they don’t pose a safety risk the way they’re used right now, but they’re keeping an eye on it, as we pointed out in our dish soap guide.
For this guide, we pretty much tested every detergent marketed to “delicates” or “lingerie” that we could find that’s readily available. There aren’t really that many of them. There were a few we didn’t like, but we eliminated the rest because they were either not no-rinse, not as cheap and didn’t clean as well as Tide, or smelled horrible. Per-wash cost figures here are calculated according to instructions on the bottle in order to control for bottle size and detergent consistency and may vary depending on the price of the detergent itself.
(Photos by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.)
Originally published: March 30, 2016