Everyone needs laundry detergent. Which detergent is the best? Tide powders with bleach alternatives like Tide's Ultra HE Vivid Bright + White lift stains better than anything else, as product testing from trusted sources like Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping have confirmed.
And if you prefer a greener detergent, a pod (for easy toting to the laundromat) or a cheaper liquid, we’ve got a few other choices, too–even if they’re not quite as good at cleaning as our main pick.
What to look for in a laundry detergent
It has to clean well! Keep in mind that our picks and research below were focused on providing detergents for “high-efficiency” models of washing machines. Since most washers are designed to last 5-7 years and someone might keep them 10-12 (and HE washers have been on the shelves for 10 years) we figured it would be better to focus on high-efficiency detergents. If you need to know about stuff for non-HE machines, you can check out Consumer Reports‘s piece here. (Subscription required; we really love CR so we recommend you subscribe if you can.)
Consumer Reports had the most comprehensive tests. Tide’s Ultra HE Vivid Bright + White was the only one to be ranked “excellent” in warm/hot and even cold water cleaning, and it swept the “blood,” “grass” and “ring around the collar” tests. Only 3 other kinds of detergent, out of dozens, could say the same. It earned a final score of 82/100, making it the best in CR’s findings among any type or brand of detergent.
According to Good Housekeeping (which recommended a similar but now unavailable version of Tide with powder and bleach alternative), Tide just plain removes more kinds of stains, which makes it valuable no matter how thoroughly you’ve sullied your socks. Their tests were a little more opaque by way of explanation, but still laudably extensive: “We took 74 formulas — 49 liquids, 19 powders, and six single-use tabs — for a spin to see how well they removed 20 common stains (oil, coffee, mascara…) from polyester and cotton. Surprise: Powders packed the most power.”
Budget laundry detergent
Best detergent if you are a Sam’s Club member
We still recommend Tide for most people, but if you are a Sam’s Club member, you might give it a try and save a few bucks.
A green/Eco laundry detergent that’s also good for sensitive skin
Here’s more on those chemicals: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides a handy shorthand for greener products: the Design for the Environment (DfE) certification. Products allowed to display the DfE logo have undergone screening that determines that “the product contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class.” In addition to DfE certification that declares its ingredients cause the least possible harm to human health and our world, Seventh Generation is free of optical brighteners and Leaping Bunny-certified to not test on animals. Note that the list of DfE-certified laundry partners doesn’t include Procter & Gamble.
To drive that point home, in 2012 Women’s Voices for the Earth had a variety of laundry detergents tested, and two Tide formulations contained a carcinogenic byproduct called 1,4-dioxane. Forbes reports that P&G’s Herbal Essence shampoos were earlier found to contain the same contaminant, and that the company reformulated those products because of greater sensitivity around stuff you actually slap onto the human body. However, in part because laundry detergents are not covered by California’s Prop 65 standards, P&G won’t be reformulating Tide, according to the New York Times. We won’t jump to conclusions here, but if this concerns you, go with Seventh Generation, which is still rated to clean well.
The worst thing about Liquid Tide is the presence of propylene glycol, which might explain why some people (including me, my daughter and my brother-in-law) get rashes and/or headaches when exposed to the detergent. While the chemical has been cleared for human consumption and airplane de-icing, there is some evidence that exposure to it is associated with asthmatic symptoms in children. GoodGuide is not too keen on this.
Cost and other imperfections for our picks
Despite a strong recommendation for Tide powder, no one brand can be a perfect choice for everyone.
Tide’s Ultra HE Vivid Bright + White, the best at cleaning of the powder candidates, was also the most expensive per load (excluding Seventh Generation). Consumer Reports says it’s 23 cents a load, whereas most in the upper ranks are between 10-20 cents. Not a dealbreaker for most, but there you have it.
Product design led to my biggest complaint about Tide Pods. The pod itself is made up of a gooey white section overlaid with colorful yin-yang liquid cells. As science writer Patrick DiJusto (and Sweethome expert) explained for WIRED, “the three chambers keep the detergent ingredients separated so that they don’t destroy each other while sitting on the shelf.” With all those seams, it’s no surprise one of them failed. I ended up with a burst pod in the bag even before I ran the tests, which meant all the pods were covered with a light slime of detergent. It was tactilely unpleasant, and it was annoying to think that I lost at least 25 cents for that broken pod.
Note that, like the liquid version of Tide, Tide Pods (as well as the liquid-filled All and Purex competitors) contains propylene glycol. This is one more reason for those sensitive to propylene glycol to choose the less delicious-looking—if not as effective—Seventh Generation powder-filled pods.
There are dozens of kinds of detergent, and a lot of these are fine, but Tide just beat mostly everyone else.
Thinking about going DIY?
There are a dozen recipes for DIY laundry detergent on the internet, and it can be tempting to use a homemade option. If your top priorities are spending less money, and making sure you know the exact proportions and source of every ingredient, this might be an option. But if you want a serious clean, premade is a far better value. Reviewed.com tested four DIY recipes against Tide, and the results weren’t terribly surprising: for sweat, oil and carbon, blood, and cocoa, Tide handily beat the homemade detergents (for red wine, one homemade detergent did a slightly better job, but that recipe did drastically worse in every other test). For the cleanest whites, store-bought detergents are the clear winner.
Wrapping it up
Anyone whose highest consideration for laundry detergent is stain-lifting power cannot go wrong with Tide’s Ultra HE Vivid Bright + White. If you or your family are sensitive to ingredients in Tide, or if you just want the best balance of environmental responsibility and cleaning ability, go with Seventh Generation.
"Best Laundry Detergents", Good Housekeeping"We took 74 formulas — 49 liquids, 19 powders, and six single-use tabs — for a spin to see how well they removed 20 common stains (oil, coffee, mascara...) from polyester and cotton. Surprise: Powders packed the most power."
"Best Laundry Detergents", Consumer Reports, November 2011"In a powder vs. liquid contest, there's no clear winner. The best detergents were liquid, but so were lower-rated products. None of the Tides or Wisks were duds."
"It’s a wash — none of the detergents fully removed all of the stains, but they all produced otherwise-clean clothes. And though all claimed to be free of perfumes, each had a singular scent. For maximum eco-claim and stain removal with the lowest price and least-perfumy scent, we suggest Seventh Generation Free & Clear."