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How Does Laundry Detergent Work?

August 26, 2019

Let’s face it—nobody likes doing the laundry. It’s just one of those tedious chores that take up your time. Still, it’s something that we have to do on a regular basis. At the end of the day, no one wants to have a pile of dirty clothes build up in the corner of their room.

When you think about it, we’re quite lucky. Nowadays, we have appliances like washing machines and dryers to help us. Can you imagine how tiring it would be if we had to do everything by hand? That’s not to say that we shouldn’t wash some things by hand, though—because that will be required for some garments.

When it comes to doing the laundry, there’s one thing that you always need. That’s right, laundry detergent. After all, we wouldn’t be able to get rid of all the “gunk” with just plain water. It’s similar to how we use soap to wash our hands—it helps to lift the dirt and debris away. Just running our hands under the water wouldn’t do us any good.

importance of laundry detergents

Ever went shopping for detergent? If so, you must be aware that there are numerous formulas to choose from. If anything, there must be dozens of brands out there—all of which contain different ingredients and chemicals. With that said, they’re all similar in that they fall into one of three categories: powder, liquid, or pods. Some people even make their own detergents at home with everyday products!

The Different Types of Laundry Detergent

As mentioned above, there are three types of laundry detergent. While they all do the same thing (i.e. clean clothes), they’re slightly different from one another in how they’re made and used. Let’s take a closer look at them below!

Powder Detergents

Powdered detergents have been around for a long time. In fact, they’re the first type of detergent that came into the market. Sure, they might not look as appealing, but they definitely get the job done. 

powdered laundry detergents


For one thing, they are generally cheaper than other types of detergent (e.g. liquids, pods). Unlike their more expensive counterparts, they also come in cardboard boxes, which is much more environmentally friendly. Did you know that it can take several hundreds of years for plastic to degrade in the landfill?

That’s not all—powder detergents also have a longer shelf life. Generally speaking, they can last upwards of a year if left unopened. Of course, you should always try to use it up as soon as possible once you’ve opened the packaging.

The most interesting thing of all, however, is that it can actually outperform liquids. For example, did you know that powders tend to have greater bleaching abilities? The reason is simple—you can add non-chlorine bleach to powder products whereas that’s impossible for liquids; it will deteriorate much too quickly.


As expected, however, it does have a few downsides. First and foremost, you want to be careful not to get the box wet—otherwise, the product might be ruined. Pretreating also takes more effort with powders. Instead of being able to just pour it onto the fabric, you have to first mix the powder with water separately in a bowl to make a paste. Still, it’s just as effective.

Liquid Detergents

Liquid detergents were first introduced in the 1950s. Since then, they’ve become one of the most popular formulations.

liquid laundry detergents


Liquid detergents have several advantages. For starters, it does not require pre-mixing—you can just use it out of the bottle. Convenient and easy to use, it’s perfect for pretreating stains. Given that you use the proper amount, they’re also less likely to clog up your washing machine.

Another thing to consider is that it doesn’t get airborne like powdered detergent. This can be a big issue for those with respiratory conditions such as allergies or asthma. After all, these are chemicals that we’re talking about!


As convenient as may be, however, liquid detergents do have a few disadvantages. For instance, they typically come in plastic bottles, which is not environmentally friendly—it can take hundreds of years for the polymers to break down in the landfill.

Price-wise, they’re also more expensive than their powdered counterpart. Not to mention that they generally have a shorter shelf life. Given that they don’t contain bleach, they’re also not as effective for stain removal.


Pods are the newest type—they’re convenient and easy to use, more so than liquid detergents! However, that doesn’t always make them the best choice.


Pods are popular because they are convenient. Single-dose, they do not require any measuring or guesswork; you just use the whole thing. This means that you won’t have to worry about overdosing your clothes.

Small and compact, they require very little storage space. They also remain stable for longer, which means that they have a longer shelf life. Lastly, it does not create as much packaging waste.


Pods are without a doubt, the most expensive type of detergent out there. After all, they’re single-use items. Designed for average load sizes, one pod will likely not be enough to wash a large load of clothes. In cases like that, you might have to use two pods, which will greatly increase costs. 

Given that they’re “pre-dosed”, you also can’t adjust the amount for pre-treating or hand washing. If anything, they are only suitable if you’re washing your clothes with the machine.

Main Ingredients of Laundry Detergents

Powder and liquid detergents pretty much have the same ingredients, As mentioned earlier, the biggest difference is that powders often contain bleach whereas the latter does not.

more about surfactants

Both types of detergents contain a fair amount of surfactants. These substances are responsible for lowering the surface tension between two liquids. What is surface tension? It’s a force that allows water to hold its shape and not “spread out.” These forces are broken down by the surfactant molecules, which allow the grease to be washed away. In other words, it improves the water’s ability to wet things, aka your clothes. 

Physically, they have a head that is attracted to water and a tail that’s attracted to grease and dirt. When detergent molecules meet the grease, it draws in the oils while the heads remain in the water. Eventually, the attractive forces between the head and the water will lift the grease from the surface. This grease is then broken into smaller components by the detergent and washed away by water.

Surfactants aren’t the only thing that’s in laundry detergents. Look at the ingredients label and you’ll see that they contain various other substances as well. For instance, you’ll often find optical brighteners, chemicals that will brighten your clothes, and enzymes, which help to dissolve and break down the gunk. Many products also contain perfume, which gives your laundry that “clean and fresh” scent.

Laundry Detergents: How Do They Work?

Now that we know what they’re made out of, let’s go over how they work from the top.

how do laundry detergents work

1. You throw your dirty leggings into the washing machine. During the wash cycle, the surfactant from the laundry detergent will mix and dissolve in the water.

2. The surfactant’s grease-loving tails will attach themselves to the grease that’s on your leggings. The throwing and tumbling motions will help to break the dirt into smaller pieces, that is easier to remove.

3. Water molecules attach themselves to the heads of the surfactant molecules during the rinse cycle.

4. The water molecules will eventually pull the surfactant and grease away from the leggings. The final rinse will help to drain away the dirty water. In doing so, the item will be clean!

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