The Best Laundry Detergent

Laundry detergent just might be the most engineered cleaning product in your home. It has to both attract and repel dirt at the same time, then rinse away without damaging your clothes, your washer, your skin, or the environment. After performing 150 hours of research, examining 252 stain swatches, doing 136 pounds of laundry, testing 20 different detergents, consulting with a surfactant specialist, and analyzing laundered fabric with a UV/Vis spectrometer, our top pick is Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid. In our tests, it was simply the best at getting out nine different stains in both cold and warm water. Its price, roughly 36 cents per load, is in the middle among the detergents we tested, but if clean is queen for you, that’s not too much to pay.

Last Updated: January 23, 2015
We've added a new section on how to pick a detergent for washing baby clothes and diapers.
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January 21, 2015: After performing 150 hours of research and testing 20 different detergents on 252 stain swatches and 136 pounds of laundry with a chemist, our new favorite is Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid. In our tests, it was the best at removing a wide variety of stains in both cold and warm water. It's particularly great at removing chocolate, grass, lipstick, oil, tomato, and red wine. At 36 cents per load, it’s fairly affordable, falling about mid-range among the detergents we tested.
June 24, 2014: Tide HE Vivid White + Bright's name has changed to Tide HE Plus Bleach Alternative. It's the same pick, but we changed all references to the new name. It's currently out of stock at, however, so we changed the buy button to
March 14, 2014: Based on new tests from Consumer Reports, we switched our club brand pick from Costco's UltraClean Pods to Sam's Club's Member's Mark Ultimate Clean Liquid. The Sam's Club brand came in second to our Tide pick in their cleaning tests and it's super budget-friendly if you have a membership.
December 26, 2013: Tide HE Vivid White + Bright's name has changed to Tide HE Plus Bleach Alternative. We confirmed with Tide -- same product, different name/package. (HT to reader Brad!)
Simply the best at removing all kinds of stains. Smear yourself in lipstick, roll around in the grass, whatever—this detergent will get it out and won’t break the bank doing it.

It’s pretty unlikely that you won’t be able to find Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid somewhere, but if you can’t or it’s sold out, Tide Ultra Stain Release Liquid is our runner-up choice. It also was excellent overall at removing stains, but not quite as good as our top pick. Specifically, it was excellent at getting out chocolate, oil, and blueberry stains, but not as effective as our main pick at removing lipstick and tomato stains. It’s also a bit more spendy, costing about 40 cents a load.

Also great
Another great stain buster, it powers through chocolate, oil, and blueberry stains. Bonus: neato scrubby and easy-pour top. It’s a little more expensive than our top pick though, and it doesn’t perform quite as well overall.

Another great stain buster, it powers through chocolate, oil, and blueberry stains. Bonus: neato scrubby and easy-pour top. It’s a little more expensive than our top pick though, and it doesn’t perform quite as well overall.

And if you want something greener, something cheaper, or something without dyes and fragrances, we’ve got picks for those, too.

Also great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $15.

This powder impressed us with its ability to remove blood stains in a snap. It’s also free of dyes and fragrances, so it’s great for you sensitive types.

In our tests, the most effective fragrance and dye-free detergent (which also happens to be the best green detergent) was the Ecover Zero Powder. It kicked ass and took names at blood, grass, and oil stains, but was much wimpier than Tide With Bleach at ousting red wine stains. It’s also marketed as a “green” detergent, although there is no evidence that green detergents are better for the environment than conventional ones (see Green detergents). But, Ecover Zero is not tested on animals and also omits optical brighteners. It’s also cheaper than our top Tide, costing 21 cents per load.

Also Great
This budget dynamo whacked stains with the best of the best, and costs a third of your precious dollars per load. And for those who don’t like scented detergents: It comes in a free and clear version.

If you’re on a serious budget but still need a very effective detergent, try Target’s Up & Up Free and Clear. It was among our top five detergents for performance and runs only 12 cents a load. It held its own at oil, grass, and lipstick, and was a good all-around cleaner. It wasn’t quite as good as our top pick in most stain categories, but it totally blew the other budget laundry detergents that we tested (and many non-budgety ones too) out of the wash water.

Table of contents

Who am I?

I’m a PhD chemist with a working background in textiles, plus a longtime knitter. In short, I know chemistry, and I know textiles and fibers. I’m also the wife of a chef who doesn’t notice when he’s bleeding on things, and a mom to a cloth-diapered kid. Read: I’m a scientist who’s used to having to get out a lot of stains, and I do a lot of laundry.

How we picked

Laundry detergents are seriously complex. There’s a surprising amount of science packed into that bottle. Most contain some or all of the following ingredients: surfactants to remove dirt, enzymes for stain removal, polymers for all kinds of reasons, optical brighteners to make that T-shirt look whiter, water softeners to make sure the surfactants work well, anti-foaming agents to make sure your laundry room floor stays suds free … the list goes on and on.

Our previous winner for this guide was Tide Vivid White + Bright powder, which we chose after reading through existing reviews. Since we published that version of the guide, though, new tests have been conducted by Consumer Reports, and new formulations have been introduced in stores. For this piece, we conducted a sweep for new formulas and decided to subject the top detergents to our own tests.

And here’s the story: There are A TON of laundry detergents out there. We decided to start this guide with all major detergent forms being equal. So we didn’t base our finalists on form, but instead on cleaning power. That means pods, powders, liquids, green detergents, fragrance- and dye-free formulas, the entire laundry detergent shebang, were all treated equally.

To start winnowing down the list, we eighty-sixed all kinds of specialty detergents. Baby detergents, sports detergents, detergents for black or colorful clothes—you will not find them here. We didn’t include laundry bars such as Fels Naptha either, since very few people use those. We also eliminated laundry detergents with added fabric softener, since it’s not a good idea to use these on towels or anything else you want to be absorptive.

We looked primarily at detergents that were formulated for HE (aka high efficiency) washers, because while HE detergents work universally in both HE machines and older, non-HE machines, non-HE detergents should never be used in HE machines because the formulas foam up too much in that environment [see HE vs. regular detergents].

We also dismissed detergents that were hard to find (such as Wisk), or that you had to be a member of some club to get (such as the Sam’s Club brand).

We had to find a way to narrow down the list of detergents from what seems to be an endless variety available in stores and online. To get to our final list of 20, we began by looking at the best sellers on Amazon and, and in physical stores in the United States as measured by SymphonyIRI, a market research company. We also looked at top performers in Consumer Reports’ tests (subscription required), and detergents that Good Housekeeping liked as well. On top of those qualifiers, the detergent had to be relatively easy to obtain1. Here’s what we ultimately tested, and why.

How we tested

We’ve already established that a laundry detergent has to clean, right? We first tested how well 20 different laundry detergents cleaned using some pre-stained fabrics and a stand mixer.

For this preliminary round of testing, I placed 3- by 3.5-inch swatches of standard pre-stained fabric (commonly used by the detergent industry) from Testfabrics Inc. I placed the strips—stained with blood, grass, oil, coffee, chocolate, lipstick, tomatoes, blueberries, and red wine—in 1 gallon of hot (120°F) water and “washed” them in a Waring stand mixer on low for 10 minutes2. After washing, I dunked the swatches in cold water to rinse, and then let air-dry.

Preliminary testing setup, with Waring commercial stand mixer. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

Preliminary testing setup, with Waring commercial stand mixer. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

To figure out how clean each swatch was afterward, I lined them all up and eyeballed which ones were the lightest in color, meaning that the most stain had come out. I did this for each of our nine stains, then tracked how often each detergent showed up on the best lists.

Some of the preliminary test samples. Note: not nearly all of them. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

Some of the preliminary test samples. Note: not nearly all of them. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

The five top-performing detergents got to move on to the next round of testing. The winners were:

For the next round, we moved the testing into an actual washing machine. I did this in a Kenmore top loader, non-HE machine. I pinned each of the nine stain swatches (blueberry, blood, chocolate, coffee, grass, lipstick, oil, tomato, and red wine) to a towel, and ran it in the wash with 8 pounds of clean towels to make a medium-size load. Each finalist detergent got a swatch washed in warm water (about 78℉) and another in cold (about 60℉). We wanted to see how the different detergents behaved in each water temperature, as well as compare the washing power of warm versus cold water overall.

For some stains, it was pretty easy to pick out which the best performers were. These are blood samples. 9 was Gain powder, 16 was Tide Ultra White + Bright powder, 11 was Tide coldwater powder, and 6 was ecover zero powder. Please note that I’ve tried to make the colors in the picture as accurate as I could, but it still looks slightly different than in person. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

For some stains, it was pretty easy to pick out the best performers. These are blood samples. Swatch 9: Gain powder; 16: Tide Ultra White + Bright powder; 11: Tide for Coldwater Powder; and 6: Ecover Zero Powder. I have tried to make the colors in the picture as accurate as possible, but they still look slightly different than they did in person. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

I compared the washed swatches by reflectance spectroscopy using a UV/Vis spectrometer3. This measures how much “color” each swatch has on it, so I was able to quantify exactly how much stain was removed from each swatch. I compared each washed swatch with the others, the unwashed stained fabric, and to a control washed swatch that was run with just warm or cold water, no detergent. Most stain removed = winner.

The finalist chocolate stains. The lighting in this picture isn’t the greatest, but you can tell that 14 (Tide plus bleach alternative HE liquid) and 20 (Tide Ultra Stain Release) are lighter than the rest. This is why I let a scientific instrument figure out the color differences for me. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

The finalist chocolate stains. The lighting in this picture isn’t the greatest, but you can tell that swatches 14 (Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid) and 20 (Tide Ultra Stain Release) are lighter than the rest. This is why I let a scientific instrument figure out the color differences for me. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

Between each detergent, I ran a rinse cycle with only the towels, no swatches, to remove any possible residue.

Washy K. Washingmachine in his natural habitat. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

Washy K. Washingmachine in his natural habitat. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

There were a couple of stand-out lessons from our preliminary tests. In general, if erasing those stubborn blood stains is high on your priority list, go with a powder. In our preliminary tests, the top performers for blood were all powdered detergents, and Ecover Zero was the best of that bunch. Sadly, powders do have some downfalls: They’re messy to use, trouble if you get the box wet, and becoming frequently harder to find at your local store. In addition, the box of Ecover Zero I got did not include a scoop, so I had to use my own. Bit of a pain.

Warm water wasn’t necessarily better at getting out stains than cold.

Warm water wasn’t necessarily better than cold at getting out stains. So unless you have a really good reason for washing in warm or hot, such as really stinky clothes or cloth diapers, go for cold. It saves energy, and your clothes will last longer.

Pods also didn’t do that great in our tests. They weren’t horrible, but no pods made it into our top five. In addition, they are very, very toxic to young children (see A warning about pods). True, they can be very convenient if you have to tote your dirty clothes to a laundromat. But unless there are no kids in your house, and kids never visit, avoid the pods.

Blueberry stains seemed a bit difficult to remove, and liquids and powders handled them differently. The two types of detergent whisked away different aspects of the stain, and the resulting cleaned swatches ended up being different colors. Because of this, it was pretty much impossible to compare the blueberry-stained swatches, and we ended up not really counting them in our final clean-out death match.

And if you get lipstick on something, wash it separately from your other clothes. I had a heckofa problem with lipstick stains transferring onto the other swatches during washing. Lipstick is very oily and sticky, meaning that it can smear on fabric that it touches.

Our pick

Simply the best at removing all kinds of stains. Smear yourself in lipstick, roll around in the grass, whatever—this detergent will get it out and won’t break the bank doing it.

With the best performance across the board, we recommend the widely available Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid. This premium-priced formula from the most dominant brand in the laundry detergent aisle justifies its place at the top: It had stellar results on nine different stains in hot, warm, and cold water. In many of our tests, this Tide formula beat the competition (and when it wasn’t tops, it often came in a close second place). It was particularly great at getting out chocolate, grass, lipstick, oil, tomato, and red wine stains; good at getting out coffee and blueberry stains; and okay at blood.


A sample of the data I used to determine the winner. The higher the reflectance, or %R, the less color the swatch had, and therefore the cleaner it was. Detergent 14: Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE: 20: Tide Ultra Stain Release; 6: Ecover Zero; 11: Tide for Coldwater Powder; and 17: Up & Up.4

We confirmed Tide Plus Bleach Alternative’s excellent performance using a UV/Vis spectrometer, measuring the amount of color remaining on stained fabric swatches after washing in different water temperatures. Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid bubbled to the top on not all, but many of our tests. The graph above was just one I generated for chocolate, but most were similar, with this Tide at the top and Tide Ultra Stain Release a close second.

We’re told there’s no such thing as a “bleach alternative”—that’s just a marketing phrase that means enough cleaning products have been added to make clothes look bright.

Interestingly, there’s no oxidizing agent or bleach in the product at all. In fact, we’re told there’s no such thing as a “bleach alternative”—that’s just a marketing phrase that means enough cleaning products have been added to make clothes look bright. Tide plus bleach alternative HE contains (pdf) 7 different kinds of surfactants, 4 different types of enzymes (amylase, protease, mannanase, pectinase), an optical brightener (disodium diaminostilbene disulfonate), a couple of types of polymers (polyethyleneimine ethoxylate and diquaternium ethoxysulfate), a preservative (benzisothiazolinone), plus pH balancers, process aids (which generally act to get the other products into water), fragrance, dye, and soil capturing agents to grab dirt and minerals out of water. (For more, read What’s in laundry detergent?.)

Our editorial team will continue to test this detergent over the next few months to report on long-term effects.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Several user reviews point to a few issues with this detergent: The most glaring problem is that in some circumstances, the detergent can leave permanent purple stains on white clothes. This would be a dealbreaker for us, but we couldn’t replicate the issue over many washes.

We tried to stain a load of whites by pouring detergent into the machine slot and washing on cold; pouring detergent directly on whites and washing on cold; and pouring detergent directly on whites and washing on hot. I also tried to replicate the deodorant issue by smearing some white towels with some Dove go fresh anti-perspirant, dumped the detergent right on there and washed in cold, but still did not get any purple stains.

A customer service rep told us stains can occur when the detergent isn’t fully dissolved, either when the detergent is poured directly on clothing or when it doesn’t dissolve fully in cold water. He suggested that we wash clothes in the warmest water the clothes can handle.

Additionally, Tide PR rep Anne Candido had this to say about the staining problem: “Yes, there are instances of staining due to an ingredient responsible for the whitening in the formulation. For the vast majority of consumers it is not a problem. However, there are isolated cases where it can be an issue.” She then outlined this official protocol for getting out the purple stains:

  • Rinse the stain under hot water to remove as much as possible.
  • Gently wring the excess water from the item and lay it out flat.
  • Apply household rubbing alcohol/burning alcohol to the stain, making sure it covers the entire stain. (Test on similar fabric or inside fold first.)
  • Let the stain soak for at least 10 minutes—the longer the better.
  • Using warm or hot water, rinse the fabric and this should remove the stain.
  • If the stain has not been completely removed, repeat the steps above.

We will definitely be keeping an eye on this issue in our long-term testing.

The other issue voiced most often in reviews is that the “original” scent formula has changed fragrances. And, yep, they’re right. Tide changed the scent slightly in February 2014, Candido said. Specifically, “After extensive research with our loyal Tide consumer, we made a small tweak to the scent to improve the fragrance expression.” Since we don’t know what it smelled like before, we can’t tell if this is an improvement or not. Still, people married to the previous scent may be upset by this.

Also, at 36 cents per load, it’s not the cheapest detergent out there. (It’s so valuable that people have been trading it for crack.) Ecover Zero comes out to 21 cents per load, while Target brand Up & Up costs about 12 cents a load, for comparison.

In February 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that Procter & Gamble was planning to raise the price on its premium Tide products by reducing the amount of detergent in the bottles. “Consumers may not notice that they are paying more for Tide Plus, because rather than up the cost of the bottle, P&G is shrinking each container: 100-ounce bottles, for example, will become 92 ounces, and 50-ounce bottles will be downsized to 46 ounces. The tactic has been a tried and true way for consumer-goods makers to sell less volume for the same price,” they said.

If you want to pay considerably less per load but don’t mind slightly less effective performance, go for our budget pick.

Last, this variation of Tide also doesn’t come in a dye-free or unscented version, which can be a turnoff for many people.


Also great
Another great stain buster, it powers through chocolate, oil, and blueberry stains. Bonus: neato scrubby and easy-pour top. It’s a little more expensive than our top pick though, and it doesn’t perform quite as well overall.

If you can’t get Tide Plus Bleach Alternative, we recommend Tide’s newest offering, Tide Ultra Stain Release Liquid. This won in tests by Consumer Reports (subscription required), and fared nearly as well as our top pick in our tests. It outperformed all other detergents in chocolate washed in warm, oil washed in cold, and red wine washed in cold. It also came in a close second behind the Tide Plus Bleach Alternative in most other categories.

So, really, the only difference between this detergent and the Tide Plus Bleach Alternative was slightly worse performance, and the price. Tide Ultra Stain Release is a little more expensive than our main pick, too, coming in around 40 cents per load, versus 36 cents per load for the Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE. Tide Ultra Stain Release does have a pretty swanky cap though, complete with pour spout and stain treatment scrubber.

Cap from Tide Ultra Stain Release liquid. Notice scrubby bit on bottom. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

Also Great: green and perfume-/dye-free detergent

Also great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $15.

This powder impressed us with its ability to remove blood stains in a snap. It’s also free of dyes and fragrances, so it’s great for you sensitive types.

For those of you wanting a “green” detergent, try Ecover Zero Powder, which is also our dye- and fragrance-free pick. It was our third best performer, sweeping the blood stain category, and also was best at removing grass in cold and tomato in warm. It was typically right behind the top two in the other categories.

There’s no evidence that “green” detergents are any better for the environment.

While there’s no evidence that “green” detergents are any better for the environment (see Green Detergents), Ecover contains no dyes or fragrances, and they don’t test on animals. It seems to be pretty widely available for a green detergent—that is, it’s unlikely you’ll find it on standard grocery store shelves, but it’s pretty common in co-ops, organic grocery stores, and online. It’s also a pretty good deal for your dollar, costing about 21 cents a load and skewing toward the cheap end of the detergents we tested.

This is also our recommendation for those of you who want dye- and fragrance-free detergent. The dermatologist we spoke to, Dr. Erin Warsaw, said that people with sensitive skin should stick to free and clear detergents in powder form because they generally lack methylisothiazolinone (MI) or methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), common preservatives that can irritate. (See Laundry detergent and allergies).

Budget pick

Also Great
This budget dynamo whacked stains with the best of the best, and costs a third of your precious dollars per load. And for those who don’t like scented detergents: It comes in a free and clear version.

Target brand Up & Up Free and Clear is an incredible value, especially considering that it outperformed plenty of more expensive detergents. It was not quite as good as our top pick in our tests, but it wasn’t very far behind. And at 12 cents a load, it costs about a third as much as the Tide.

If you’re not into unscented, Up & Up has linen- and lavender-scented versions, both online and in stores. However, it does contain optical brighteners, so if you want to avoid those, go with Ecover Zero for the free and clear route, and the next cheapest option of our top detergents.

But in general, Up & Up is a rock star clean for a garage band price. It was especially good at removing red wine, oil, grass, and lipstick. Depending on the stain, it bounced around at everywhere from first to fifth place in our final tests, most commonly in third, fourth, or fifth. But hey, still top five out of 20. And you can’t beat the price, not even with a stick.

The competition

The last two of the top five, Tide for Coldwater Powder and Up & Up free and clear, traded off the next best spot, although the Tide powder did edge out Up & Up in performance overall. Tide for Coldwater Powder was great at blood (although not as good as Ecover Zero) and good at lipstick and oil, but didn’t outright win any of the categories in our final testing, even in cold water tests. It’s also expensive, at 50 cents per load. Since it’s a powder, it might be slightly gentler on your skin, but overall there are better detergents out there.

Of the detergents that didn’t make it past preliminary testing, there were still some that did better than others. The next tier down from the top five included our pick from last time, Tide Vivid White + Bright powder, which just barely didn’t make it this time. Also in this group were Gain powder and Caldrea liquid. In the prelim tests, the Tide powder was good at getting out blood, tomato, and grass. Gain powder was also good at blood and grass, and Caldrea was near the top at blueberry and chocolate stains. However, none of these did well enough overall to make our final cut.

The next group landed in the top five for one swatch each: OxiClean (lipstick), Tide Pods (oil), Tide HE Free & Gentle (wine), Tide HE liquid (chocolate), Gain HE liquid (coffee), Charlie’s Soap Laundry Powder (blood), all mighty pacs free and clear (coffee), and Seventh Generation liquid (coffee). So each was good at getting out one kind of stain, but not good at all the others. Sad trombone.

The last group wasn’t particularly good at any kind of stain: Dropps pacs, Nellie’s All-Natural Laundry Soda, and Xtra liquid laundry detergent. Set phasers to “skip.”

What’s in laundry detergent?

LOTS of ingredients are in laundry detergent. It’s amazing how much scientific research has gone into getting your clothes clean.

Probably the most important parts of a laundry detergent are the surface active agents, or surfactants. These are the molecules that work to clean your clothes. They’re closely related to soap, they just work better. Here’s a detailed explanation of how soap works, and here’s some info about why surfactants work better for everyday use. But in short, soap can make soap scum. Surfactants don’t do that. Examples of a few surfactants you might find in laundry detergent are alcoholethoxy sulfate, various laureths (such as laureth-6, -7 or -9), alkyl sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, ethoxylated lauryl alcohol, the list goes on and on. It seems like every company has their favorite.

Oxidizing agents (including bleaches) are important, too. These are called oxidizing agents by laundry detergent companies because people generally shy away from bleaches. But many oxidizing agents are also bleaches5, including the “non-chlorine” bleaches hydrogen peroxide and sodium percarbonate. The chemical name for straight up bleach is sodium hypochlorite, but all oxidizing agents work the same way on your clothes. Remember that mnemonic device from high school chemistry—LEO the lion goes GER? Loss of Electrons is Oxidation, Gain of Electrons is Reduction. Oxidizing agents work by making the molecule that they’re oxidizing (usually a colored stain such as tea) lose electrons. Electrons are what holds molecules together, so when a molecule is oxidized, it tends to fall apart. Things that are colored are often larger molecules—small molecules usually don’t have a color. Ripping apart a large molecule to make a bunch of smaller ones removes the color, so it looks whiter. Voilà, bleach!

The difference between chlorine and non-chlorine bleaches is just that—chlorine. Sodium hypochlorite (NaClO) has it, while other bleaches such as hydrogen peroxide (HOOH) and sodium percarbonate6 do not. There’s some evidence that chlorine bleach can react with other compounds in household cleaners and form VOCs, aka volatile organic compounds, some of which are carcinogens. However, according to the CDC, breathing small amounts is unlikely to harm you. Some people also say that chlorine is bad for the environment, which is why it tends to be frowned upon. However, the jury is not back on this one. The CDC also says that sodium or calcium hypochlorite is broken down in sunlight and in water, and it does not accumulate in wildlife. It’s also largely removed by wastewater treatment plants, so any going down the drain will unlikely make it to a water system.

Chlorine bleach can be dangerous, however. It’s corrosive, so keep it far out of reach of children. And never ever ever ever EVER mix chlorine bleach and ammonia. This creates chloramine gas, which can kill you in horrible ways7.

There’s no such thing as a color-safe bleach.

Some companies put a bleach or bleach alternative into the detergent itself, said Keith Grime, former vice president of Procter & Gamble, and it is activated when the water from the washing machine hits it. And there’s no such thing as a color-safe bleach. “The name bleach alternative just implies that enough cleaning material has been put into the product to give bleach-like performance without the bleach.” Some people worry about bleach in their detergents because they think it will damage or fade their clothes, Grime said. “Obviously [the bleach alternatives] wouldn’t be added if they were not color safe. But as you know, perception and reality are not always the same thing. Some people see the word bleach and get worried, but they want something that works as well as a bleach,” he said. So, basically, you’ll see the words “bleach alternative” in a liquid detergent (such as our top pick) that has been formulated with other stain-removal chemicals (often a high level of enzyme) to aim for typical bleach-like performance.

This next ingredient you’ve probably heard of: enzymes. They’re normally found in our bodies. Enzymes are large biological molecules whose general job is to break smaller molecules into little, easily digestible pieces. The cool thing about enzymes is that there are so many of them, and each one has a very specific task. There are enzymes in our mouths to break down starches and start the digestive process. There are enzymes in our blood to help it clot. Think of any biological process, and there’s an enzyme for that.

A very small amount of enzyme in laundry detergent will get all that food-based stain off of your clothes.

About 30 or so years ago, some chemist had the genius idea to put these things into laundry detergent. Many stains we get on our clothes are food-based, and there are enzymes in our bodies to break down food. So why not put these in laundry detergent to essentially “digest” them off of our clothes? Another neat thing about enzymes is that they’re catalytic. That means that you only need a very small amount, and it will keep breaking down its specific target until you either run out of water, or the thing itself breaks down. As Grime put it, you’re not going to run out of water in a washing machine, which essentially means that a very small amount of enzyme in laundry detergent will get all that food-based stain off of your clothes.

There are all kinds of enzymes in laundry detergent. Some of the most common ones: amylase, which is found in our mouths and breaks down starches; lipases, which break down grease; and proteases, which break down protein (think gravy stains). “There are more sophisticated ones, but probably those three cover about 90 percent of detergents,” Grime said. Very early efforts into using proteases in laundry detergent led to people being hypersensitive to them, but they’ve been long since worked out and don’t bother most people.

Water softeners address hard water, which is when there are a lot of dissolved minerals, such as calcium, in the water. These minerals interfere with the cleaning agents, and make it not clean as well. Water softeners ensure that detergent works as well as it should. 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.

Next up are polymers. A lot of things can be called polymers—it’s simply the term for strings of molecules that are made up of a smaller repeating unit. And in laundry detergent world, they’re a catch-all, Grime said. Usually, the polymer that’s used 99 percent of the time is a dispersion agent, or an anti-redeposition agent, which keeps your clothes from turning gray over time. When detergent lifts dirt off your clothes, several things have to happen, Grime said. First the dirt has to get wet, so the water has to interact with it. That’s one of the roles of a surfactant. But now you have the dirt mixed with surfactant in the wash-water. That dirt REALLY wants to go back on your shirt. Most fabrics have a charge. Dirt tends to have an opposite charge, so it has a physical attraction for the fabric, Grime says. If there’s nothing in the detergent to stop it, the dirt will stick back on your shirt—not in a concentrated stain, but all-over. This is called redeposition, and over time it makes your clothes look dingy and gray. So modern detergents have an anti-redeposition agent, usually a polymer, and usually a type called a polyacrylate, Grime said. “Their job is to disperse the soil that’s gone into the fabric, usually to aggregate them into a larger particle, and then they’re washed down the drain,” Grime said. Things like this help extend the life of your clothes, because they look newer longer.

Another ingredient that helps clothes look brighter are brighteners (hence the name). These are molecules that stick to the surface of your clothes and glow when UV light hits them. Since sunshine has UV light in it, we see this glowing light as white, hence clothes look whiter. In fact, people in the military are not supposed to use laundry detergent with optical brighteners on their uniforms, because it makes their uniforms easier to see in low light and with night-vision equipment. Yes, it’s all an illusion. And they’re in most detergents, Grime said. These replaced older compounds that did the same thing, called bluing agents. Those were literally blue dyes, often ultramarine or Prussian blue, that people added to their laundry to give them a bluish tint. This counteracts that yellowish tint that whites get over time, resulting in clothes that looked whiter. Most companies use optical brighteners instead now, since they work better.8 There are something like 400 different types of optical brighteners out there good for use in laundry detergents, but only a handful are actually used commercially. Of these, most are some kind of stilbene derivative, meaning that they share the same basic structure as stilbene, but are wearing different jewelry. There are rumors flying around the interwebs that optical brighteners are a health hazard, an environmental hazard, or both. However, the EPA has studied several of these compounds and concluded that they are safe. More about this in Ingredients of concern.

The last ingredient of note is some kind of suds suppressor, also known as an anti-foam agent, because too much sudsing in your washing machine means a big mess all over the laundry room floor. Anti-foam agents are there to make sure that there are enough suds, but not too many, Grime said. Each washing machine is different in how much it will agitate your clothes, so each will make a different amount of suds in the machine. Hence, the need for a suds suppressor, Grime said.

There isn’t much of a difference between powder and liquid detergents. They do have slightly different ingredients, although they’re different ingredients that do the same things. For example, the cleaning agent (aka surfactant) in a powder will be different from the one in a liquid, just because some surfactants are more stable in liquid form, and others are better at being a solid. Ditto for the type of preservative. However, according to our tests, powders are better at getting out blood stains.

One big difference between them seems to be how easy they are to find in a store. According to Grime, liquids account for more than 80 percent of what’s sold. After perusing a few stores around me, I think this number might be closer to 90 percent. This is likely due to stores not wanting to devote shelf space to the powders, Grime said. And people tend to use liquids just because they’re more convenient and not as messy, he said.

Ingredients of concern

Optical brighteners, as mentioned above, are molecules that companies add to laundry detergent to make your clothes look whiter and brighter. Some people say that these compounds can be harmful to both people and aquatic life. Seventh Generation is marketing their laundry detergent on that, with their “Say No to the Glow” campaign. As Cara Bondi, research and development manager at Seventh Generation claims in this video and this blog post, optical brighteners are not biodegradable, toxic to some aquatic life, and can cause skin reactions in some people when exposed to sunlight. I talked to Bondi about this myself, and she basically told me the same things that she says in the video.9

So trying to see if there’s any merit to these claims, I dug way back in the scientific literature. As far as the light-induced skin reactions go, I found a study that said three out of 164 people in a study from the late 1960s in Copenhagen10 had a reaction to an optical brightener called Tinopal CH356K. Upon further testing, the people that had a reaction did not have any more reactions to the same stuff. Another paper11, also cited by Seventh Generation, said that an earlier paper reported a photoallergic reaction to optical brighteners, but similar tests done since then have not found any people with a reaction to them. The earlier paper this refers to was published in a German journal in 195712, and I can’t find a copy of it. There hasn’t been any research into optical brighteners and light-induced skin reactions since the 1970s, when scientists did not find any links between the two. Bottom line: The research supporting the claim that optical brighteners are harmful to people is old and very thin, so we’re not convinced.

The aquatic effects are unclear. Optical brighteners do biodegrade when exposed to sunlight. they’re also mostly removed from water during sewage treatment, anywhere from 53 to 98 percent, depending on the type of molecule13. The studies that Seventh Generation cites about bioaccumulation of optical brighteners in fish are old, from the ’70s, and say that these compounds don’t build up in fish, or if they do, they’re found in very low levels. The EPA says that optical brighteners have low toxicity to humans and wildlife, but some may have reproductive effects and need to be tested more. So … yeah. Not real helpful there.

If you want to avoid these compounds, try a green detergent, such as our green pick Ecover Zero, as they generally don’t contain optical brighteners.

Nonylphenol and nonylphenol ethoxylates are a pair of related compounds. Nonylphenol ethoxylate is made from nonylphenol. They’re usually listed as a pair because nonylphenol ethoxylate will break down back into nonylphenol in soil and water, and while they’re both nasty, nonylphenol is the nastier of the two. They’re both endocrine disruptors, which means that biologically they look like hormones and trigger similar reactions in organisms’ bodies, kind of like BPA. The nonyl part of nonylphenol means that it has a nine-carbon chain. This is stuck to a ring of carbons with an -OH (alcohol) group attached, which is the phenol part. Because this compound has so many carbons, it tends to not dissolve in water very well. So when it’s washed down the drain and eventually ends up in a river or stream, the nonylphenol molecules drop out of the water, and hang out in the sediment at the bottom of the river. This is bad, because they tend to hang around for a long time once they’re stuck in the dirt, which gives them longer to have harmful effects on the animals that live in the water. How long they take to break down varies, depending on the type of nonylphenol, temperature, pH, and other environmental conditions, but it can be anywhere from a day to three months.

The good news is that they’re not used anymore. The EPA instigated a phase-out back in 2010 that is about reaching its climax now—no more nonylphenol ethoxylates in liquid detergent as of 2013, and all gone from powders in 2014. However, they didn’t give a date in 2014, so I’m assuming it meant by the end of the year. Our green pick, Ecover Zero, which happens to be a powder, does not contain any nonylphenol ethoxylates.

1,4-dioxane is a contaminant, not an ingredient, but nevertheless it is concerning. 1,4-dioxane is a by-product of making ethoxylated ingredients, such as sodium laureth sulfate (or sodium lauryl ethyl sulfate, or SLES) or polyethylene glycol (better known as PEG compounds). It’s been classified by the EPA as a probable carcinogen, which means that it’s caused cancer in animal tests, but there haven’t been any conclusive human tests. A lot more about 1,4-dioxane here.

Back in 2011, the group Women’s Voices for the Earth found elevated levels of 1,4-dioxane in both Tide Original Scent and Tide Free & Clear liquid laundry detergents (report here). Procter & Gamble agreed in early 2013 to reduce the amount of 1,4-dioxane in these two liquids to below 25 ppm. While this is great, I wish that Women’s Voices for the Earth had tested more than these two laundry detergents, as 1,4-dioxane could easily be in any detergent with PEG in it, which is almost all of them14. That being said, the possible presence of 1,4-dioxane is not a dealbreaker as far as we’re concerned. You have to be exposed to a lot of it on a regular basis for it to do you harm. Procter & Gamble reasons that even if you did more than 1,000 loads of laundry a day, you’d still be below a safe level of the stuff, which I believe because I’ve done similar math myself. Still, it would be nice to know 1,4-dioxane levels in other detergents besides those two.

Phosphates Detergent companies don’t put phosphates in laundry detergent anymore, and haven’t since the early 1990s. Phosphate-based surfactants make GREAT cleaning agents, but they also make algal bloom, which pollutes lakes and streams, so the EPA said no more over 20 years ago. Procter & Gamble, the company that makes Tide, said recently that they’re going to stop using phosphates worldwide within two years. Yay, Tide! It’s about time.

Phthalates are plasticizers, which soften up hard plastics and make them harder to break. These types of chemicals are in a lot of products, but how exactly they affect our health is not clear. Some tests with lab animals show that they can harm reproductive systems, and there’s some evidence that the compounds can affect human fertility as well. The CDC has found either phthalates or its metabolites in most people that they tested. The FDA said they don’t pose a health threat the way they’re used at present, but they’re watching the situation. Phthalates may be found in the fragrance mixture of laundry detergents, although they’re not listed on any labels, since they’re not required to be15. If you’re worried about this ingredient, choose fragrance-free detergents. In addition, some green detergents don’t use phthalates in their fragrances and will say so on the label.

Methylisothiazolinone is sometimes used along with its BFF 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. As such, companies that make these products put preservatives in them to help keep us healthy.

MI is more likely to be in liquid laundry detergents.

MI is a biocide, which means it keeps mold from growing in your bottle of Super Suds 2000. Either by itself or in conjunction with MCI, MI can cause allergies or irritation (see Laundry detergents and allergies), and it’s more likely to be in liquid laundry detergents.

There’s some data out there that MI may be a neurotoxin. There are a few studies that show that putting it directly on rat brain cells kills neurons. However, there are also many studies in which it is fed to test animals or put on their skin, and they only see bad effects at high doses. For example, they did not see any effect in feeding rats at 24.4 mg/kg a day for two weeks. That would be about the equivalent of me eating a medium-size strawberry amount of MI/MCI every day for two weeks. Looking at all this data, this study found that MI/MCI is safe to use in rinse-off products up to 15 parts per million16, and in leave-on products up to 7.5 ppm. The FDA said that it’s a popular preservative for shampoos and other rinse-off cosmetics, and is usually used at about 10-15 ppm (pdf). I haven’t been able to find any credible evidence that there’s a limit on how much MI or MCI a company can put into its product, so I’m going to assume that there isn’t one.

If you want to avoid preservatives, either read labels (although you have to go online to find them, usually), or pick powdered detergents, as they’re less likely to be in there. But for most people, MI/MCI is unlikely to cause a problem, especially since laundry detergent doesn’t usually come in contact with our skin, unless you’re using it for handwashing or you spill some on yourself. Our top pick, Tide Plus Bleach Alternative, uses benzisothiazolinone as a preservative. Our free and clear pick, Ecover Zero, doesn’t have MI/MCI either.

Sodium metasilicate is used in laundry detergent as a builder, meaning that detergent companies add them to dilute liquid detergent so it’s not too concentrated. They also act as water softeners and anti-redeposition agents. This stuff can be toxic, and even kill you, but you have to either eat a lot of it, or breathe a lot in. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, sodium metasilicate gets very few reactions in skin allergy tests, and it’s safe for use in laundry detergent. It also rinses out of clothes, so it won’t hang around to bother your skin if you happen to be allergic to it. But don’t drink laundry detergent, for a plethora of reasons.

Limonene is the compound that gives citrus peels that heavenly fragrance, and can also cause allergies and asthma. It’s also sometimes used as a cancer treatment. In laundry detergent it’s used both as a solvent and for fragrance. Limonene is rumored to be an irritant and possibly a neurotoxin.

According to the EPA, there haven’t been any tests on what happens to people when they breathe this stuff, and no long-term animal tests on limonene’s inhalation effects. Supposedly, the only effect that research has turned up is that it can cause kidney disease in male rats, but not females. And the EPA also determined that this finding could not be well-associated to the same effect in humans. They also have not fully determined limonene’s carcinogenic effects.

And yes, limonene is a neurotoxin—IN BUGS. So if you’re a locust or earthworm doing laundry, steer clear of the ones containing limonene. For the rest of us, it’s probably okay.

HE vs. regular detergents

High-efficiency washing machines, HE for short, use anywhere from 20 to 66 percent less water than older, conventional machines. This is because in HE washers, the clothes don’t sit in a tub of water. Instead, they’re wetted at the beginning and stay saturated throughout the wash—the washer adds more water if it detects that the clothes are too dry. The HE machines are also supposedly gentler on fabrics because they don’t have agitators.

It’s because HE washers use less water that you need a special detergent to use in them. The detergent has to be able to clean with less water, which means that scientists have to tweak the detergent formula a bit, said Keith Grime, former vice president of Procter & Gamble. “If you’ve only got a little bit of water, you’ve got to make sure that your detergent is highly soluble in a very small amount of water and will get to the fabric at a reasonable concentration,” he said.

Jack English, senior scientist at Procter & Gamble, backs this up. One thing they had to change when HE washers came around was their anti-redeposition agents. Because HE machines use less water, the dirt in the water is more concentrated. Reformulating the detergent was an attempt to fix this, but he said that a common complaint with HE washers is that they don’t seem to get whites as clean as a conventional washer does, and people have to use more detergent.

The ingredients are the same in HE formulas and conventional ones, but in different concentrations. “You also have to control the suds differently, as [HE washers] are continually tossing and turning,” Grime said, and tend to make suds more easily.

The bottom line is that you can use an HE detergent in a regular washer, but you can’t use a regular detergent in an HE washer. According to English, about 35 percent of people have an HE washer in their home right now, and around half of new machines being sold are HE washers.

However, most of the HE-specific detergents on the market now are okay to use in a conventional washing machine, and it will say so on the label. But make sure to check if you have an HE washer.

A warning about pods

Laundry pods or pacs are pretty convenient—throw your laundry in the washer, toss in a pod, turn it on. Done. However, if you share a house with children, you might want to re-think jumping on the pod bandwagon, since ingesting a laundry pod can make a little kid seriously, seriously sick.

It’s not that regular laundry detergents aren’t harmful to kids. They are. It just seems that pods are more harmful. According to a CDC report from 2012 and a more recent report in the journal Pediatrics, if a kid ingests a laundry pod, they’re significantly more likely to have to have medical treatment than if they get into regular laundry detergent. According to the New York Times, there have been two deaths in the US due to ingesting laundry pods, a 7-month-old boy in Florida, and a 16-month-old boy in New Jersey, both in 2013. Pod poisonings have put kids in the hospital, and sometimes in the ICU, and breathing tubes were put in because their throats had become so irritated they were starting to close up.

Why exactly pods are more harmful is still unclear to scientists. According to the CDC report, they’re not sure if it’s the concentration or formulation of the ingredients inside the pods, the differences in pH, or the delivery mechanism. However, they do know that poisonings from pods are also more likely to happen in kids younger than 5. According to the CDC data, there were 992 poisonings from all kinds of laundry detergent from May to June 2012. For the 511 cases that were regular laundry detergent, the average age was 7 years. For the 481 cases that were pods, the average age was 3 years. So it is younger kids that are attracted to these pods.

According to a story in Consumer Reports, “Pod detergents have just 6 percent market share, according to SymphonyIRI Group. Why then the disproportionate number of pod exposures?” As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted, “Children might be attracted to pods because their colorful appearance and size are similar to candy.”

All the pods we tested, clockwise from top: Dropps pacs, Gain flings, all mighty pacs free and clear, Tide pods. Crappy photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner. It’s harder than it might seem to take pictures of these things.

All the pods we tested, clockwise from top: Dropps pacs, Gain Flings, all mighty pacs free and clear, Tide Pods. Crappy photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner. It’s harder than it might seem to take pictures of these things.

According to more recent data I got from the SymphonyIRI group, pods now make up about 9 percent of the market share17, and Tide PR rep Anne Candido said that they’re about a 12 percent market share. Yet almost half of the poisonings from one month in 2012 were from pods. The pods from both Tide and Gain, both Procter & Gamble, are really the only ones that look like colorful candy. All the others I’ve seen are white or solid colored squares.

Procter & Gamble, the makers of Tide Pods, have recently tried to up the safety on the fish-bowl- looking pod container by adding a double latch lid. You can also get free stickers that go over the top from the Tide website. I ordered some, and that’s exactly what they are—stickers. (Because a toddler would never go for stickers, Tide?)

At this time, Procter & Gamble is not planning on changing the design of the pods so they look less like candy, according to spokesperson Tracey Long. “I can’t speak to any future plans. There’s nothing planned at this moment that people will see in market,” she said. She also stressed that Tide has put a lot of effort into redesigning the tub so it’s harder to get into, and that they’re not the only company that has colorful pods on the market.

This doesn’t mean that pods aren’t a great laundry choice for some people. If you have to take your laundry to the laundromat, pods are convenient and cost about the same per load as other forms of detergent. However, they did not do as well in our tests as powders or liquids. And if you’ve got little kids around, even just visiting (I’m looking at you, Mom), I’d steer clear of pods.

Laundry detergents and allergies

Think you’re allergic to something found in laundry detergent? You’re not. Or most likely not, according to Dr. Erin Warshaw, chief of dermatology at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center and co-director of the Occupational & Contact Dermatitis Clinic there. What you may have thought was an allergic reaction was probably just irritation instead. “An allergic reaction is like poison ivy,” she said. “So it requires that you are first exposed to a chemical, it takes about three weeks to be sensitized to that chemical, and then upon re-exposure, you develop a very itchy rash that often blisters.” A true allergy to laundry detergent is rare, she says. When an ingredient in laundry detergent does cause an allergy, the usual culprits are fragrances or preservatives, such as methylisothiazolinone, which is more commonly used in liquid detergents. If you’re concerned about having an allergic reaction from laundry detergent, choose a fragrance-free powder detergent, such as our free and clear pick, Ecover Zero.

On the other hand, irritation from something in laundry detergent can be more commonplace. Or from your clothes. Or from a bunch of other stuff. “A rough cloth like linen or [from] spray starch could be irritating, dry cleaner chemicals if there’s residue could be irritating, fragrances could be irritating, or sometimes the fibers themselves, like wool.” Something found in laundry detergent also could be irritating if it does not completely rinse out of your clothes, Warshaw said.

If you think you’re having a reaction from laundry detergent for whatever reason, make sure that all the detergent is rinsed out of your clothes. Warshaw suggests setting the washer to double rinse. Also, make sure you’re not using too much detergent, and follow those handy dosing instructions on the back of the bottle.

Green detergents

There are three main differences between conventional laundry detergents and the “green” kind. First, green brands tend to use mostly plant-derived ingredients, while conventional types use more petroleum-based contents. Second, many (but not all) green brands opt out of optical brighteners while conventional brands tend to use them. And lastly, green brands often don’t test on animals. Let’s tackle them in order.

There is no evidence that using plant-derived ingredients is better for the environment. According to the American Cleaning Institute, a group made up of companies that make cleaning products and their raw ingredients (both green and conventional), there are environmental tradeoffs to using both renewable and non-renewable sources for cleaning products, so it tends to even out. They say, while plant-based cleaning agents “are derived from a renewable resource, they typically produce more air emissions and solid waste. Petrochemical surfactants, on the other hand, consume more total energy, since they are made from resources used as energy.” Unfortunately, they do not link to a source for this research. No one else seems to have looked into the matter scientifically either. So until someone does, we have to assume that the difference in ingredient source is a wash.

Many, although not all, green brands don’t use optical brighteners. Many of their websites claim that optical brighteners are unnecessary, can cause rashes, and are harmful to aquatic life. Optical brighteners ARE unnecessary, but they don’t generally cause rashes, and their effect on aquatic life seems to be minimal, but it’s still unclear.

Of the green brands I looked at18, only Method says that they use optical brighteners. (I couldn’t find any ingredients list for Biokleen.) So if you want to avoid these compounds, a green detergent is generally a safe bet. However, there are some conventional detergents that don’t use optical brighteners either. Detergents formulated for darks tend not have them, which makes sense since optical brighteners tend to make things look whiter.

Also green detergents generally don’t do animal testing. Check the bottle or website to be sure. Our green pick, Ecover zero, does not.

Detergent for babies

For baby clothes and cloth diapers, don’t bother with a baby-specific laundry detergent such as Dreft, Rockin’ Green, or Tiny Bubbles. They are expensive and unnecessary.

Basically, you just need a detergent without anything in it that will stick to the diapers. Anything left behind on the surface of the diapers is going to interfere with how absorbent they are, which in turn could cause leaks. Bad. Fabric softener, optical brighteners, and fragrance are three things you definitely want to avoid, since those are designed to stick around. So Tide might not be the best bet for cloth diapers, but our green pick, Ecover Zero, would be a good choice. You could also double-rinse cloth diapers, as I did for my kid.

Dr. Richard Antaya, the director of pediatric dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine, said the only time you would need a special detergent for the wee ones is if they have eczema. But even in that case, pediatric dermatologists usually recommend a dye- and fragrance-free detergent that rinses out of the fabric as completely as possible. Antaya also suggested that you skip the dryer sheets and fabric softener for sensitive babies, since they are meant to stay on the fabric and can irritate a baby’s skin.

If you’ve heard you should avoid petroleum-based detergents because they also stick to diapers, don’t believe it. A surfactant that comes from oil is NO different than the same surfactant that comes from plants. They are the same molecule. One is not chemically different from another. You will only have surfactants sticking to your diapers if you use too much detergent or you don’t rinse well enough.

DIY detergents

It IS easy and it IS cheap. But it’s not non-toxic (far from it).

If you read anything about laundry detergents on the internet at all, it’s probably something along the lines of how detergents are horribly toxic, horribly expensive, or both. The people saying this then tend to go on to say how easy, cheap, and wonderfully natural it is to make your own laundry detergent. They’re right about two things—it IS easy and it IS cheap. But it’s not non-toxic (far from it). And homemade detergents also won’t get your clothes as clean as store-bought ones.

As Karen Spiegelman said in our eariler laundry detergent guide, “ 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.”

And this is probably because the DIY formulas only really have three ingredients—some kind of soap, washing soda, and borax. They don’t have enzymes, surfactants (which work better at cleaning than soap), or polymers, which keep dirt from re-depositing on your clothes and making them turn grey over time. Also keep in mind that washing soda and borax are kind of nasty, especially borax. Both are caustic and can cause contact burns. Don’t breathe them either. (This DIY site has a picture of a little kid mixing a borax-containing detergent in a plastic bag—holy cow, don’t do that!)

Washing soda is sodium carbonate (pdf), a close relative to baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). It works as a water softener to make the soap work better, and can remove grease and wine stains.

Borax can be poisonous at relatively small doses, especially in children. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of readily available data on the toxicity of borax19. I did find a book on clinical toxicology from 1969 that says, “The reputation of borates is so firmly entrenched that they are still readily available despite toxic potentialities reported as early as 1883.” This is still pretty true today. People tend to think borax is okay because it is naturally occurring, but it only takes an oral dose of about 5 to 6 grams to kill a child. Based on the density of 20 Mule Team Borax, that’s somewhere around a half of a teaspoon. This is not benign stuff!

Borax is one of many sodium borate compounds. 20 Mule Team Borax, which most of these DIY recipes call for, is sodium tetraborate decahydrate (pdf). It’s used for a lot of things, such as killing cockroaches, moth-proofing wool, and making cellulose materials (such as cotton) flame-resistant. The European Union, which has stricter labelling standards than we do in the US, requires borax to have warning on it that say things like “May damage fertility” and “May damage the unborn child.” This is because animals fed high levels of the stuff have had testicle damage, damage to sperm production, and damage to male fertility. Boric acid, a close relative of borax, also causes developmental effects, including reduced body weight, malformations, and death when fed to pregnant animals.

DIY laundry detergents do tend to cost less than the store bought kind. It depends on where you get your materials, but DIYs can cost as little as 4 cents a load, which is even cheaper than our bargain pick Up & Up, which is around 12 cents a load.

Borax can be safe to use, but as with any cleaning agent, you need to take precautions, ESPECIALLY around kids. Just stressing here that just because something is a) natural or b) make-at-home does not mean it is risk free.

How to do laundry properly

Okay, show of hands—who still washes all their laundry on hot? Well, knock it off. According to the Department of Energy, “Unlike dishwashers, clothes washers don’t require a minimum temperature for optimum cleaning. Therefore, to reduce energy costs, you can use either cold or warm water for most laundry loads. Cold water is always sufficient for rinsing.” According to Brian Grady, the director of the Institute for Applied Surfactant Research at the University of Oklahoma, 3 percent of the electricity used in the home in the US goes to washing clothes in warm or hot water.

The average wash temperature has dropped from about 100°F to around 80°F over the past 10 years.

And don’t worry about the detergent—it will still work just fine in cold. The average wash temperature has dropped from about 100°F to around 80°F over the past 10 years, according to Jack English at Procter & Gamble, which has been driven by federal legislation. This means that washing machine manufacturers are making the “normal” setting on washers to wash at lower and lower temperatures. “When we manufacture a detergent, we have to make sure it works across a range of temperatures” because people washing their clothes can set the wash temp anywhere from 60°F to 100°F, English said. In addition, there are some detergents specifically made to run in cold water, such as Tide for Coldwater and Biokleen Cold-water. Although according to this New York Times story from 2011, these detergents aren’t selling very well. According to our tests though, Tide for Coldwater Powder does work pretty well, but it still got beat by our picks in many cold water tests.

But honestly, hot water DOES do a better job of getting your clothes clean. As in any chemical reaction, turning up the heat makes the reaction go faster, and therefore more likely to go to completion. You might consider running some loads on hot. Really stinky workout clothes, for example, or laundry that’s very oily or heavily soiled. If you have allergies, it’s also generally a good idea to run sheets and  pillowcases on hot. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, hot water is more likely to kill dust mites. Dust mites are tiny cousins of spiders that live in mattresses and pillows, dine on human skin flakes, and cause allergic reactions in a lot of people.

A word about hot: It’s also more likely to wear out your clothes faster, since it can break down the fibers better than cold water.

But a word about hot: It’s also more likely to wear out your clothes faster, since it can break down the fibers better than cold water. So if keeping that T-shirt in tiptop condition is your goal, wash it in cold instead.

In addition, there are a few things you should never wash in hot. Clothes that have dyes that run should be washed in cold. Fabric dyes are more likely to dissolve in hot water, which makes them run out of your nice red sweatshirt and onto your whitie tighties. And blood stains will only get baked into the fabric if you run them through the hot cycle. For these, pre-treat with liquid detergent or a spot remover pen, then run them through the cold cycle. In general, you should pre-treat stains before running them in the wash. Here’s a handy chart on stain removal from the American Cleaning Institute.

Okay, great. So set your washer to cold and set the load size to … what? In our piece on washers and dryers, Emilio Gonzalez, the senior program leader for washer testing at Consumer Reports, says that a normal load of laundry is about 8 pounds. So based on that, here are some rough numbers about weight and load size:

4-8 pounds = a small load

8-12 pounds = a medium load

12-15 pounds = a large load

15-20 pounds= gargantuload

This is how detergent companies see it. They have to do it this way because there is such a range of washer sizes out there, so what looks like a large load in a small-capacity washer will be a small load in a large-capacity washer. But it is still the same amount of clothes, and you need a certain amount of detergent to get those clothes clean. In addition, fabric density matters. Eight pounds of T-shirts is a larger pile than 8 pounds of jeans, because jeans have a more dense fabric, English said. But it takes more detergent to clean denser fabrics, which is why the weight is important. And how much detergent you use is important. Too much and it might not all rinse out and cause irritation, and sometimes a mildewy smell. Too little and your clothes might not get clean. So use the dosing directions on the detergent bottle, but keep in mind that their idea of a “normal” load might be different from yours. To be sure, measure your clothes on a bathroom scale.

DON’T just fill up the cap all the way unless you’re sure you need this much.

And how much detergent should you use? That depends. Did you have a food fight in those clothes? Then lots. Did you just go to your non-sweat-inducing desk job? Then use a small amount. But make sure you take a good look at that scoop or cap that came with the detergent. There are lines there, although they may be hard to see. Make sure you fill to the appropriate line, be it light, normal, or heavy. DON’T just fill up the cap all the way unless you’re sure you need this much. More detergent does not necessarily mean more clean, it just means more money.

A confusing note: You should figure out how much laundry detergent to use by weight, but set your washer based on how full the basket is. Your washer uses the small/medium/large setting to figure out how much water is needed to get the clothes wet enough. So if you have a large-capacity washer, you might end up using a “large” amount of detergent, but setting the washer to “small.” Read your washer’s manual to figure this out.

How full you pack your washer matters, too. If you really cram a ton of clothes in there, they won’t have room to freely agitate. This means that the detergent can’t penetrate all the clothes, and that they won’t rinse well either. Loosely place your laundry in the washer, and don’t fill it all the way to the top. Also put your detergent in first, let the water fill a bit, then clothes on top. Pouring the detergent on top could result in detergent stains on your clothes, or highly concentrated parts that don’t rinse completely.

If you wear a lot of black, you might consider using a detergent formulated for colors, Grime said. “Black clothes tend to become gray clothes over time. So you really need a detergent that’s formulated to manage the color loss,” he said. There are products out there, such as Tide Total and Cheer for colors, and Perwoll  and Woolite Darks for dark clothes. These two types work the same way, made to minimize dye loss and transfer. “If you really care about a colored product and worry about its fading, then a product formulated to manage color loss is appropriate,” Grime said. Also make sure you wash in cold, which will help the dark dyes from running out of your clothes as well.

If you have a baby, you probably don’t need to bother with a baby-specific laundry detergent such as Dreft, said Dr. Richard Antaya, the director of pediatric dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine. The only time you would need a special detergent for the wee ones is if they have eczema, he says. In that case, pediatric dermatologists usually recommend a dye- and fragrance-free detergent that rinses out of the fabric as completely as possible. Antaya also suggests that you skip the dryer sheets and fabric softener for sensitive babies as well, since these are meant to stay on the fabric and can irritate a baby’s skin.

Finally, here’s a ridiculously detailed how-to-do-laundry guide from Real Simple, and some general laundry tips from the American Cleaning Institute.

Wrapping it up

If you want your clothes to be clean, clean, clean, the best laundry detergent to use is Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid. It proved to be double plus good at removing stains of all kinds in our tests, in all temperatures of wash water.


1. There are no Walmart detergents listed here because the best contenders were out of stock online, and when I swung by my local Wally World, they weren’t even on the shelves. Don’t know if they’re being phased out or what. Emails to Walmart on the topic went unanswered. Jump back.

2. According to the EPA, the average washing machine in the US holds 23 gallons of water. I figured out the volume of the suggested dose for a medium load for each detergent (they are all different), then divided this by 23 to give the suggested dose for 1 gallon of water. Jump back.

3. Technical details: Diffuse reflectance (DR) spectroscopy was performed on a Cary 100 UV-visible spectrometer equipped with a Cary 301 DR accessory. I used a cylindrical powder holder containing a BaSO4 (Alfa Aesar (99.998%) to set the 100% reflectance standard. I scanned the samples from 800 to 200 nm (near IR, visible, and near UV sections of the electromagnetic spectrum) at a scan rate of 600 nm/minute, although the most useful data fell between 300 and 600 nm. Super big thanks to the Sara Skrabalak and the Skrabalak group from the Indiana University chemistry department for the use of their instrument, especially Dennis Chen and Jie Fu. Jump back.

4. Two notes: 1) Yes, there are portions of this spectrum that are above 100%. I was measuring relative reflectance, not absolute. That’s relative to the blank, which was BaSO4. So all that means is that these samples reflected more light at those wavelengths than the BaSO4. 2) The eagle-eyed among you might notice that the control washed in warm did better than the Up & Up washed in cold. This doesn’t mean that Up & Up is a crap detergent, this means that warm water is generally better at getting out chocolate stains than cold. Up & Up did fare better than no detergent at all in all the other cases. Jump back.

5. There are some reducing agents that act as bleaches too, such as sodium dithionite (aka sodium hydrosulfite). These slightly differently than the oxidizing bleaches, adding electrons instead of taking them away. The molecules don’t break apart the large colored molecules, instead changing double bonds to single ones. This removes the “track” that electrons can run around on to make something colored, so then therefore no color. Jump back.

6. The full formula for sodium percarbonate is 2 Na2CO3∙3 H2O2. It’s made by the reaction of sodium carbonate (Na2CO3 aka washing soda) with hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). Chemically, it acts as a combination of the two, since that’s exactly what it is. So it has the cleaning power of sodium carbonate, and the bleaching power of hydrogen peroxide. Double whammy! Jump back.

7. Chloramine reacts with the water in your lungs to form hydrochloric acid, which essentially dissolves the tissue. So you actually die by drowning in your own liquified lung tissue. Chlorine bleach mixed with acid will form chlorine gas, which is also toxic. And chlorine bleach mixed with hydrogen peroxide creates oxygen gas so violently that it can cause an explosion. Hmm, maybe this is why chlorine bleach has a bad reputation? Jump back.

8. You can still buy bluing, specifically Mrs. Stewarts’s concentrated liquid bluing. They won’t tell you what it is, though. Their “MSDS” (I put that in quotes because it isn’t a real MSDS, you have to actually put chemical names on those) just says “pigment blue.” Here’s the pdf link.
Jump back.

9. I asked her for her sources of this information, since none of the research that I had done said anything of the kind. Bondi sent me one paper. The only thing this paper had to say about optical brighteners was that they are sometimes present in laundry detergent. It also goes on to say that a lot of people tend to blame their laundry detergent for irritated skin, but this rarely turns out to be the case once tested. I sent Bondi three more emails and left two voicemail message, but never heard back from her on the subject. However, I did find this online which IS referenced, and went through all the papers there as well. Jump back.

10. Osmundsen P E. Contact dermatitis due to an optical whitener in washing products. British Journal of Dermatology 1969: 81: 799-803. Jump back.

11. Gloxhuber C, Bloching H. Toxicological properties of fluorescent whitening agents. Clinical Toxicology 1979: 13: 728-733. Jump back.

12. W. Burchardt, Photoallergische Ekzeme durch Blankophore, Hausarzt 8, 486 (1957). Jump back.

13. Poiger T, Field J A, Field T M, Siegrist H, Giger W. Behavior of fluorescent whitening agents during sewage treatment. Water Research 1998: 32: 1939-1947, link. Jump back.

14. Most conventional laundry detergents contain some kind of PEG. Some green detergents don’t. Seventh Generation and ecover zero do not, Caldrea does. However, all three contain laureth surfactants, which are a potential source of 1,4-dioxane. Jump back.

15. But to help you figure out what’s in that fragrance mixture of that laundry detergent you love, Tide has this pdf about their scents and fragrances. Isn’t that helpful? Jump back.

16. One part per million, usually shortened into ppm, is about the concentration equivalent of 32 seconds out of a year. Jump back.

17. I asked Tracey Long, the P&G spokesperson, to verify this number for me, and she said she would look into it. Since then she has not returned my numerous emails and phone calls. Jump back.

18. Green brands that don’t have optical brighteners: Charlie’s, Planet Ultra, 7th Gen, Mrs. Meyer’s, Rockin Green (says they don’t, no ingredient list), Country Save (ditto), Grab Green, Clorox Green Works, Ecover, and Ecos. Jump back.

19. I had to really dig to find what I did, which went back to a completely heartbreaking study in the early ’60s of infants having boric acid accidentally put in their formula at a hospital. Five of them died. I’m not exactly sure why there was boric acid hanging around, but from other literature I found out that people used to mix talcum powder with borax to treat diaper rash, and that mothers would sometimes soak dummies (the midcentury version of a pacifier) in borax glycerin for their kids’ teething pain. Remember that boric acid and borax are not the same thing, but when borax hits the hydrochloric acid in your stomach, it turns into boric acid. Jump back.

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  1. "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."
  2. "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."
  3. "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."

Originally published: January 21, 2015

  • Deathalo

    Love the site, answering questions that pretty much everyone asks at some point. You should do dishwasher detergent next!

    • Karen Spiegelman

      Thank you so much! I’d love to look into that further — or maybe have one of our other writers do the hard work for me. I tried dishwashing pods and BOO! Skin and undissolved powder a-poppin’. The kind I tried put me off all pods for a year; I only tried laundry pods when I was researching this story. Thanks for the feedback!

    • cnccnc

      Finish Powerball tabs work absolutely great for me, and they’re cheap. I almost never have dishes come out dirty.

      • Deathalo

        My mom actually recently recommended the same, and I hear they’re better than the gel packs that will clog your jets up. I will be buying them next :D

  • Jimmy Pautz

    I use liquid Era. I’ve compare to Tide and All and I it does equal or better at stain lifting and costs way less (I pay $8 for a 96 load jug).

    • Karen Spiegelman

      I’m so glad you found a good, cheap alternative! Era didn’t do quite as well in formal testing as the other brands I looked at (41 points at Consumer Reports, compared to Tide’s 61) — but keep in mind that it’s a pretty flat grading curve. Most detergents work quite well. Thanks for your recommendation!

  • Kent Wang

    Tide is not available in the UK. What are the best options in the UK and/or EU? I’m currently using Ecover, which is unscented.

  • Ashevillian

    My detergent needs to be HE and unscented. Is Seventh Generation free of extra fragrance?

    • Karen Spiegelman

      Yes, there is an unscented version. That’s what I use on my kid’s clothes, and it does great. The clothes come out just smelling like fabric (if that makes sense). Cheers!

  • DB

    Thank you for the information, though I can’t stand the smell of Tide, in any form. It’s just plain nasty to me. Gain (the original stuff, for HE) is my favorite….may they never change much! (With Oxi-clean added, as needed, and appropriate temperature’d water.)

  • Marie

    No Method? Works great, smells amazing, not too pricey if you get it on sale, bulk refill available in a sturdy plastic bag.

    • Karen Spiegelman

      I love the smell of Method too, but it did not do very well against the other detergents in Consumer Reports testing. It only got a 45, compared with 73 for Tide and 57 for Seventh Generation. But yep, it’s a fine detergent, and if you’re happy with it, great! :)

  • tarun

    Atsko sport wash – inexpensive, no residue, no odor,

  • zlindsey

    If you’re interested in diving deeper into detergents, I suggest a perusal of cloth diapering blogs/forums. Though the above article is helpful and a good aggregation of the cited sources, I’ve learned that parents (usually mothers) who use cloth diapers have obsessed over detergents and have developed a very nuanced perspective on effectiveness including stains, damage to fabric fibers, soap residue, color fastness, absorbency etc.

    Again, only if you’re very, very interested in detergents.

    Good job and thanks!

    • Tony

      That’s interesting. Is there a summary of their findings anywhere? I wish this article included aspects like damage to fabric fibers and color fastness. What’s the point in cleaner your clothes better if it just fades them or shortens their life-span.

  • Tommy Z

    I subscribe to CR and if I recall correctly, I read in the magazine a few months back that they said Wisk was the best detergent. I also found this using Google:

    I’d be curious to hear a response on this!

  • Roger Sadowsky

    If you have a front loader, I strongly recommend you stay with powdered detergents. Liquid detergents are the cause of a really bad smell in front loaders.

  • Roger Sadowsky

    If you have a front loader, I strongly recommend you stay with powdered detergent.
    There are tons of stuff on the internet about front loaders developing a really bad odor. Having been there, I tried every remedy on the internet. The only one that actually worked was switching from liquid to powdered detergent. We have switched to Tide HE powder and have had no odor problems since.

  • elijahnicolas

    I didn’t know that you could use powders in front-loading HE machines?! Doe you just fill the cartridge like normal? I have the previous 2nd to high end LG machines and have just been using liquids, but I’ll give the powders a try.

  • ravegoboom

    a lot of my stuff (underarmour) says do not bleach. is this safe for those items? I noticed you said this is a ‘bleach alternative’ so I must ask. Thanks!

  • Kush

    What about the best detergent for black clothes? Any research there?

    • http://www.twitter/jontycampbell Jonty Campbell

      Dreft? Soap flakes? Woolite?

    • cranraspberry

      Powdered Cheer is great for non-HE machines! No OBAs or oxy bleach. Also, if you are willing to splurge, Persil and MieleCare have great color detergents that will work with HE machines.

  • Stefano

    Just wanted to point out that I just bought the recommended Tide Liquid on Amazon and not only was it $11.97 but they also have a $1.50 coupon. Which makes it much cheaper than the $18 listed here.

  • Pf Wag

    Add a little (5% by volume) trisodium phosphate (TSP) to any detergent and it will clean like detergent’s did in the days of old. That is because TSP is what was taken out. You can buy it in the paint section of most home improvement stores.

    • BobTX2

      It will also damage local waterways & fish populations, and raise the costs to cities of treating water from these areas. There’s a reason it’s gone now.

  • poiuytman

    The “Vivid White + Bright” line is no longer listed in the products section of Tide’s website (although the page can still be found with Google). Has it been rebranded “Tide Plus Bleach”? The packaging looks similar.

  • Louie

    This product has been renamed to “Tide HE plus Bleach Alternative”. The Tide rep I just spoke with said that the formula is still the same–just a name change.

  • Michele Clark

    It is very hard to find powdered detergent anymore in any store I go to in Central Vermont. Very annoying in my opinion. Powdered is, I believe, much less expensive than liquid. I haven’t seen either powdered Seventh Generation or powdered Tide in – at least a year – maybe longer.

  • Steve Camuti

    The Seventh Generation detergent is only 14.39 on Amazon… not on sale. Did the price change from when this article was written, or am I blind?

    • tony kaye

      Yep it recently changed!

  • alanjay

    I dislike the Tide’s fragrance. What is your pick for an unscented detergent?

  • Brian Schack

    Can you recommend a hypoallergenic detergent?

    • tony kaye

      From our guide above:

      “Tide Free and Gentle High Efficiency Unscented Detergent”

      From Tide’s website:

      “Tide Free has been specially designed for sensitive skin. It’s made with no dyes or perfumes and is dermatologist tested to provide your fabrics with a great clean that’s gentle on your skin.”

      • Brian Schack

        Looks good, thanks.

        • tony kaye

          No prob. Happy to help!

      • http://www.twitter/jontycampbell Jonty Campbell

        If there is no dyes or perfumes then surely it must be more effective?

        • tony kaye

          We recommend the Tide HE Vivid White + Bright.

  • Tony

    @karenspiegelman:disqus maybe you can add a section about the best detergent for color fastness and gentleness on fabrics?

    • tony kaye

      I’ll try to bring this to the attention of our writer, but I think cold water is the #1 rule to colorfast’ing.

      • Tony

        You might be right. I’m mainly interested in knowing if there’s really any merit to detergents like Woolite (esp the Dark version) and their claims of better color fastness and gentleness on fabrics.

  • LyndsayWaugh

    what does it main quality for the Detergent to clean the dirt from clothes?

  • Adam Leach

    Hands down the BEST laundry detergent I have ever used. I have very sweaty and smelly socks that NEVER smell fresh. Read this review and decided to give it a try. BAM! No more stinky socks! Finally! Thanks for your research efforts! :D

  • April

    Thanks for the great guide! Quick question though: I keep seeing “the new Tide Plus collection” in stores. Are these new formulas or just new packaging? If new formulas, are you guys planning to test them? Thanks in advance for any info.

  • Josh

    I had read in consumer reports not long ago that Costco brand powder detergent tested better in removing blood than did the Tide and was the recommend detergent. You list Sam’s but was Costco a oversite or do you guys not have a Costco near by. They also pay there employee’s better than Sam’s.

    • tony kaye

      IIRC, you have to pay a membership fee even to shop online at Sam’s Club, whereas you don’t have to pay the one-day pass fee to shop online at Costco.

  • J. Garrett

    What about the best powder detergent to use without bleach if you plan on using your own oxy bleach separately sometimes?

    • J. Garrett

      P.S. That’s not from a membership store…

    • tony kaye

      The Tide we picked uses a bleach alternative, not actual bleach (and non-membership Walmart). And our other pick is the Seventh Generation (Amazon). The rest I believe are liquid or pods only.





    • Donna

      Actually the best way to remove fresh blood is with a strong mixture of salt water. I never measure, but it should taste like ocean water. It works best if you can pour it through the stain immediately without too much scrubbing, which breaks the cells. I try it first even on dried stains, then you may need to add some hydrogen peroxide to bleach out any hemoglobin (the pink color) that is left. How it works is that it shrinks the fragile, balloon like red blood cells without popping them like water does, and they basically wash through the fabric. What stains is the hemoglobin inside the cells, so keeping them intact is the objective. I’m a former hospital laboratory scientist, so have had to remove a lot of blood from my clothes and white lab coats.

      • tony kaye

        Thanks for the tip!

  • ahcpa

    The title and package image at Target now clearly says “plus bleach,” not bleach alternative. Is his actually the same product you recommended?

  • Kawin Rattanakorn

    CR ranks Tide Ultra Stain Release (liquid) as equal in performance in HE machines as Tide HE Plus Bleach alternative, is this a new product since this article was written?

    • tony kaye

      I believe it is, yes. It’s marked on as apart of the “New Tide Collection”. Also worth noting that elsewhere, it’s a 3/5 star.

  • Mark Lowe

    I see a lot of people that do not like the fragrance of a particular detergent. If this is true just add a bit of vinegar to the rinse cycle. Adding white, distilled vinegar to laundry is a great way to keep your laundry clean and preserve its colors. White, distilled vinegar can even act as a fabric softener, lint deterrent, and allergy reducer.

  • Eric Schewe

    Just killed 2 hours driving around town looking for the Seventh Generation and Tide recommendations in British Columbia, Canada. I was unable to find them in any stores and after digging around the Tide/7th Gen US and Canadian websites I have come to the conclusion they are not available for sale in Canada.

    I have e-mailed both companies customer services departments to confirm.

    • tony kaye
      • Eric Schewe

        $16 for a box of the Seventh Generation soap and an extra $20 in shipping for a total of $36 plus taxes ($40.32 total for one box). Not sold directly by but via a 3rd party.

        No Tide on

        • tony kaye

          Ah sorry I didn’t catch that. Let me see what I can find out!

        • tony kaye

          Can you check this page and see if anything is available on the Google Shopping page?

          • Eric Schewe

            Went 5 pages in and the only Canadian place I found was which says “Currently not available” (

            Everything else was information, a different product or a US store.

          • tony kaye

            Man that is crazy. Why is it so hard to find in Canada? Do you guys have access to or Casa?

          • Eric Schewe

   will ship to Canada. Cheapest shipping available is $10 bring the total to $32USD. Not much cheaper than the $40 I found on

   does not have the Tide or will not ship it internationally.

            Seventh Generation customer service got back to me and said that their powder laundry detergent is not available in Canada.

            Haven’t heard from Tide customer service yet.

          • tony kaye

            Yikes. Sounds like a nightmare. We’re working to better serve our international community. Situations like this are a prime example why.

          • Eric Schewe

            Ah ha. Went back to Canadian Tire and found these They look like the pod version of your powder recommendation.

          • tony kaye

            Nice! Glad you found these!

  • cranraspberry

    Thank you for the interesting overview! I’m a huge fan of Persil detergents, but the Tide Plus Bleach does a very good job too. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Tide Plus Bleach liquid – it has four enzymes vs two in the powder, and did a really good job on some very dirty socks.

    I was also not expecting much from the Method liquid, but it tackled some four day old red wine sauce stains and pretty dirty dog blankets (granted, with a prewash and using six squirts instead of the recommended four), and on top of that smells heavenly, so that’s my new favorite for sheets and towels.

  • jm

    There appear to be two types of concentrated Seventh Generation Powder — “ultra concentrated” (comes in a 50oz screw top tub) ( and the kind in the box (pictured above). I mistakenly thought they were the same, and was going to refill my tub with powder from the box , but the scoops are significantly different in size. They both are for 70 loads, even though one is 50oz of powder and the other is 112oz of powder. The Consumer Reports quote above refers to the “Superconcentrated Powder”. Do you know if they mean the one that comes in the 50oz size or the one in the 112oz size?

  • Mike Luster

    So has the Tide product changed names again? I ordered via the Target link Tide HE Plus Bleach Alternative but received a box labeled Ultra Tide Plus Bleach which is what the Tide website displays under the HE product name.

    • tony kaye

      Where did you order it from?

      • Mike Luster

        I used the link here which took me to Target.

        • tony kaye

          OK getting to the bottom of this! I know they’ve changed names a few times so it’s likely it’s the same stuff with a new/different name.

          • tony kaye

            Our researchers think it might be a Target fulfillment issue. I would contact Target and see what they have to say.

  • PegeleusDukes

    As a big fan of Charlies Soap, I think it would be a good addition to the eco test next time around!

    • tony kaye

      Wasn’t aware of that. Thanks!

  • KB

    As always, an amazingly thorough, comprehensive test. But I wish you had been able to compare Costco’s offerings (Kirkland brand). I do wonder how the one we use (Ultra Clean) would’ve fared.

    • tony kaye

      We also dismissed detergents that were hard to find (such as Wisk), or that you had to be a member of some club to get (such as the Sam’s Club brand). – Including Costco. Sorry.

  • Christian Bell

    I might have missed it, but there’s some discussion with HE washers about powders being better for front-loading washers, in terms of avoiding the mildewy buildup that’s been the subject of a few class-action lawsuits. For that reason, I switched to Tide powder after the last version of this review, and I’ve been happy with its performance in our new Maytag Maxima XL set. Was that a factor in this review?

    • cranraspberry

      I’m glad you bring this up – judging by the photo, the author of the test has a top loader, so she might not be aware of the joys of “smelly washer syndrome” that front loader owners face.

      I too have heard that the following laundry habits are linked to an increase in mold/smell issues: liquid detergent, primarily cold water washes, use of fabric softener, not leaving the door of the washer open to air out.

      • Leigh Krietsch Boerner

        You are correct, that joy is unknown to me. So no, that wasn’t a factor in this review. (Sorry about that.) And unfortunately, The Sweethome doesn’t have the funds to send me a shiny new front loading washer to try the detergent out on. So we’ll be keeping an eye out for what people say about stinky washer syndrome, but I can’t keep a personal eye on it with my current washer.

    • cancoi

      Agreed. Having had problems with our previous Whirlpool front-loader with liquid detergents, we’ve changed to powder & used the previously recommended Tide Free & Clear powder. After cleaning gelatinous mildewed sludge from our previous washer, I really can’t recommend using a liquid for a front-loader.

  • fishpatrol

    I’d love to see more directly about washing cloth diapers, and also instructions from detergent companies to run a couple blank loads using their detergent, then only use their product (thinking of Charlie’s). Nice lock-in, but necessary? As go the cloth diapers, so goes all other washing right now.

    • Ganda Suthivarakom

      We’re actually going to add a bit more to the guide for you shortly. Leigh used cloth diapers on her child and looked into the issue. In terms of blank loads, I think there would be value to those since you don’t want any residual stuff (optical brighteners, fabric softener, etc.) sticking to your diapers. Leigh also did blank loads in between testing detergents.

      • fishpatrol

        Thanks! We definitely want to take care of baby’s bum. More information on which detergent ingredients can cause irritation would be welcome, too. Drying diapers in the sun works its own wonders. Looking forward, for lots of reasons, to seeing the sun again.

        • Leigh Krietsch Boerner

          To avoid irritation, you really just need to make sure that all the detergent rinses out of the diapers. I always set my washer to double rinse when I’m going diapers. And yes, drying cloth diapers in the sun is a great way to remove stains. UV light breaks down stains much like sucking electrons out of them does, just photochemically instead of chemically. Yay.

    • Ganda Suthivarakom

      New section added, check it out!

  • cranraspberry

    What an awesome review! One comment – the pdf you link to is actually for the non-HE Tide ingredients list, the correct one is

    • tony kaye

      Fixed. Thanks!

  • cambi0

    I appreciate the inclusion of “green” detergents in this review. As usual, a solid review overall.

    There is no additional level of cleanliness that any Tide or similar brand’s product could offer that would make up for the fact that I’d be basically living in and constantly breathing the chemicals they use. I would be that more people are sensitive to these types of chemicals, but they just aren’t encouraged to look at their detergents, colognes, etc. as a possible cause of their irritation or headaches.

  • Luke Bornheimer

    Were any detergent ultrasonic alternative devices (like this one: tested or consider? What are your thoughts on these types of devices?

    • tony kaye

      $100,000? Seriously?

    • Ganda Suthivarakom

      Hi Luke, Looking at that item in particular, looks like the “ultrasonic” cleaning is meant to replace the physical act of hand washing, but Dolfi intends for the device to be used with detergent. That makes sense to me, as one of the things I learned from Leigh while editing the piece is that while surfactants can remove dirt from clothes, detergent needs anti-redeposition agents to keep dirt from getting back on your clothes. I would be skeptical of a device that claims to replace detergent. (Of course, for someone who has detergent phobia, doesn’t mind grayish clothing, and doesn’t have a washing machine, it could be the perfect thing.)

    • Leigh Krietsch Boerner

      Yeah, that just looks like a replacement for the agitation of a washing machine, not the detergent. So that’s kind of out of the scope of a guide for laundry detergent. I did look into those detergent free systems that you attach to the water line by your washer, which are something different. Also, they’re really expensive and they don’t work.

    • Chris

      Luke, I can tell you the ultrasonic laundry alternative is a complete sham. Ultrasonic cleaning is only effective for hard objects.

  • bikermanlax

    I seem to remember reading a good review (maybe CR?) about Sam’s Member Mark. Too bad the Sam’s/Costco alternatives weren’t mentioned as they can be good deals pricewise.

  • Tim M

    Any professional opinions on Trader Joe’s liquid laundry detergent? It is $10 for a good size jug of it, smells good, and seems to do a decent job. (I doubt, however, that they have affiliate links or anyway to purchase online…)

    • Ganda Suthivarakom

      Unfortunately, we didn’t include it in our tests because TJ’s isn’t available everywhere (or online) so it wouldn’t be right for most people. (Yes, I know we recommended TJ’s hot chocolate in another review, but that’s a special occasion thing and can be purchased online by resellers.)

  • L.A. Lady

    Does Tide offer a fragrance-free version of your top pick? Or should I just stick with the Ecover? Red wine and blood stains are very low on my priority list (deodorant, dingy whites and stinky workout gear are more of an issue).

    • Ganda Suthivarakom

      Unfortunately, there is no fragrance-free version of Tide with Bleach Alternative. The Ecover is a great fragrance free detergent and it performed really well in our tests.

      • Laura Lindeman

        Did you test the Ecover Liquid detergent at all?

        • Leigh Krietsch Boerner

          We did not, as it didn’t score well on other people’s tests, nor is it a good seller in stores or online.

          • Laura Lindeman

            Interesting, thanks! I’m usually wary of powder detergents, but maybe I will give that one a try.

  • Ryan

    What happened to Costco/Kirkland? It’s a pretty major brand for a lot of people because a lot of people have Costco memberships!

    • tony kaye

      We dismissed detergents if you have to be a member of a club to buy. So no Sam’s Club & no Costco. Not everyone has memberships and if you want to buy as a non-member, you have to pay a surcharge.

  • JohnOCFII

    Once upon a time I was led to believe that liquid detergents were quite a bit more expensive per load than powder. Is that still the case? I’ve been buying Tide Ultra powder for a number of years.

    • Leigh Krietsch Boerner

      No, they seem to be about the same now.

      • JohnOCFII


  • doomdayx

    Consumer reports rates costco’s brand the best, you should have covered that one. As the second largest retailer in the US they aren’t something you should just ignore!

    • tony kaye

      We are not Consumer Reports.

  • Chris

    This has been asked multiple times in this thread, and I haven’t seen a direct answer: Why wasn’t Costco’s Kirkland Powder Laundry Detergent considered?

    • tony kaye

      Please read the guide:

      We also dismissed detergents…that you had to be a member of some club to get (such as the Sam’s Club brand).

      This includes Costco as you have to be a member to purchase or pay a fee.

  • foosion

    Is Tide plus Bleach Alternative safe for colored clothes? I’m concerned about using something with bleach in the name on colors, even if it’s not really bleach and it’s listed as color safe.

  • Chris

    Would you please test Percil? It is a new entry from Germany available only at WalMart for now. I’ve tried it and it worked well for me.