Detergent Cleaners 101

assorted detergent bottles

There are many different detergents on the market for different cleaning purposes, so what kinds to use when can get confusing. This popular cleaning product is said to have originated during the first world war, but it’s evolved quite a bit since then, which means there’s a fair amount to learn.

What’s the Difference Between Detergent and Soap?

While they’re both meant to clean, soap and detergent differ in some key ways. First, detergents are often synthetic and made from petroleum, whereas traditional bar soap tends to be made of natural fats.

Furthermore, detergents pack a little more cleaning power and are easier to rinse off. In contrast, soap is known to leave more of a residue, commonly referred to as soap scum. This lingering layer can actually confer benefits in skin washing, since the longer rinse time causes us to remove more dirt and germs.

Finally, soap has the potential to cause certain stains to set rather than getting rid of them. This applies to tannin-based stains, like those left by tea, coffee, or red wine. Detergent is a much better match for stains like these.

powder detergent

Detergent Ingredients


Surfactants are dirt removing agents. There are four main genres of these agents—anionic, nonionic, zwitterionic, and cationic—each with distinct chemical properties. Nonionic surfactants, for example, are less sensitive to water hardness, and create less foam.


Usually composed of zeolites and phosphates, builders help surfactants clean more thoroughly.


Typical fillers include sodium sulfate, borax, sodium chloride, water, alcohol, and anti-foaming agents. Bleach, enzymes, and whitening agents may also be present in some detergents. Enzymes are responsible for breaking down amino acids in protein-based stains, like blood and egg.


Polymers are also present in detergents. These are responsible for trapping and holding dirt and dyes, prohibiting them from spreading from one article of clothing to the other while they’re in the process of being washed.


Preservatives exist in detergents in order to lengthen the shelf-life of the product. Stabilizers are also included in these solutions, helping to maintain enzymes, bleach, and allowing the product to be more “sud-friendly”. Stabilizers also enhance the shelf-life of detergents.

Potential Hazards

Some additives may increase the efficiency of detergent but cause unwelcome reactions on sensitive skin or fabrics. If someone in your home is prone to rashes, consider reaching for a mild alternative.

Many detergents are listed as being “phosphate free,” which is broadly considered to be better for the environment, since phosphates can encourage the growth of dangerous algae if they enter the water table after running down a drain.

Types of Detergent Cleaners

detergent cleaner bottles with towels

Powder Detergents

While powder detergents may seem like a thing of the past, they’re actually more effective than liquid detergents, and feature a longer shelf life than liquid varieties. This type of detergent is best used to clean fabrics like cottons and linens. They're also good for getting oil and clay based stains out of fabrics.

Their downfall comes in the fact that they’re harsher on fabric, which is why they’re usually used for only the most stubborn or massive stains or dirt and grime. Powder detergents can also leave a chalky residue on clothes if they don't fully dissolve.

Powder detergents are usually anionic, made of fatty derivatives of aromatic sulfonic acids. They're most effective with warm, soft water.

Note that most powdered detergents contain washing soda as a builder, and some are very alkaline which can damage surfaces, and irritate skin with prolonged contact. Strong solutions can dissolve paint. Always rinse thoroughly. Do NOT use where mild detergent is recommended.

Liquid Detergents

Typically a bit softer, liquid detergents are among the non-anionic class. These solutions work well in hard water, and don't produce as much foam as their powder counterparts. Use liquid detergents to clean synthetic fabrics. They also work well in cold water and can be used, in many cases, to pre-treat stains.

detergent pods

Pod Detergent

In recent years, pods have become a convenient and popular way of using detergent. These little pouches make it easy to use the exact right amount of detergent as you do laundry without any measuring. The ingredients in these pods are concentrated and are known to perform comparably to run-of-the-mill liquid versions.

These work well in standard top-load washers and high-efficiency top and front-loading washer models. They're manufactured to dissolve completely in both hot and cold water.

Pre-Soak Detergents

Detergents labeled “pre-soak” are used to prepare fabrics before they're fully cleaned. They’re formulated to loosen up and remove hard-to-get-out stains.

Hand Washing Detergents

Certain clothes and fabrics require hand-washing in order for them to retain their original shape and feel. These are good to use with woolen clothes, and often have special properties that work more gently on both fabric and skin.

DIY Detergent

If you're feeling empowered by all this info, and you'd like to try your hand at creating a product with the perfect balance for you, take a shot at creating your own detergent!