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Liquid vs Powder Laundry Detergents

March 10, 2019

Doing the laundry can be somewhat of a science—there are several things that you have to consider when it comes to washing your clothes. As it is, we can’t just blindly toss everything into the machine (well, you can, but we wouldn’t recommend it). For starters, you have to take into consideration the kind of fabric that is used to make the garment. After all, different materials require different kinds of care; you can’t just assume that you can wash everything the same way. Take, for instance, your jeans—you wouldn’t wash them the same way as your sports bras, would you?

The products that you use on your clothes is equally as important—that is, you should always check to make sure that you’re using the proper type of detergent for your items. At the end of the day, different detergents have different formulas, which are meant for different things. For instance, some cleansers are incorporated with bleach; this would make them unsuitable for certain fabrics such as wool and leather (the bleach would break down the fibers).

Aside from the cleansing agent, there are other chemicals that you might want to add to your clothes such as fabric softeners and conditioners. For the purposes of this article, though, we won’t be going into that too much. Instead, we will be focusing our attention on laundry detergents.

History of Laundry Detergents

Laundry detergents, as we know them today, were first introduced in the 1930s. Even before that, however, chemical additives were used to clean clothing. For instance, Ancient Egyptians added silicates and ashes to soften water; sulphur was also used to clean different types of cloths.

How do Laundry Detergents Work?

Laundry detergents contain many different components including chelating agents, surfactants, enzymes, dyes, and fragrances. The truth is, they rely on these chemicals to separate the dirt and oils from the clothes; the water then washes these impurities away.

what are surfactants

With that said, surfactants do most of the cleaning. Special types of compounds, these molecules have one end that is attracted to water-repelling substances like grease and oil and another that is attracted to water. Ultimately, how it works is that one of the ends attach to the dirt whereas the other side pulls the item toward the water. In doing so, the molecules effectively remove the dirt and grime from your clothes. From there, the dirt is either suspended in the wash water or rinsed away. 

Different Types of Laundry Detergents

As you probably already know, there are many different types of laundry detergent. Aside from liquid detergents (the most common variety), there are ones in powered and pod form, the latter of which was introduced to the market in the early 2010s. At one point in the ’60s and ’70s, tablet detergents were also popular. 

Regardless of their shape and form, these detergents work in the same way—they contain surfactants that lift dirt away from your clothing. With that said, they still have their differences that make them unique.

On this page, we will be taking a look at liquid detergents and powdered detergents. How are they different? Are they comparable in terms of efficacy? When should you use one over the other? These are some of the topics that we’ll be touching upon below.

More About Liquid Laundry Detergents

Liquid laundry detergent was developed in the early 20th century. In 1907, a man named Otto Rohm discovered that enzymes could be incorporated into cleaning agents to improve washing performance. His detergent, Burnus, later became the most widely used detergent in Germany.

It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that liquid detergents became available in the United States. Ultimately, the credit goes to Robert Duncan, a P&G worker who discovered surfactants while in Germany. Thanks to his work, P&G was eventually able to work out a deal with German companies that allowed them to use these molecules. P&G’s first liquid detergent, Dreft, was released to the market in 1933.

Ingredients of Liquid Detergents

Liquid detergents more or less contain the same type of compounds. Generally speaking, it is the ratio of the ingredients that is different. Let’s take a look at the different components.

liquid detergents


Alkalies are one of the major ingredients of liquid detergents. A type of soluble salt, it is effective in removing dirt and other impurities from fabric. For instance, sodium and potassium are great at eliminating oil; this is achieved by forming an emulsion of the grease particles (it is then rinsed away with water).


As mentioned earlier, surfactants play a critical role in laundry detergents. How do they work? They surround the dirt and lift it into the water. Without surfactants, dirt would not be able to dissolve properly in water. Common surfactants include ethers, alkyl sulphates, and alkyl ethoxylate sulphates.


Enzymes are often added to liquid detergents to enhance performance. Depending on the product, that can either be processed or natural (i.e. plant-based). Catalytic proteins, they essentially break the soil into smaller molecules, which can then be rinsed away with water. Some of the most common ones used include protease, lipase, mannanase, cellulase, and amylase.

Fragrances and Dyes

More often than not, fragrances and dyes are added to liquid detergents. This might be obvious but they are not involved with the cleaning process. Instead, they are used for aesthetic appeal. While that may be true, there is always a possibility that these chemicals can lead to skin irritation. For this reason, those with sensitive skin are advised to use fragrance-free and dye-free formulas.

Advantages of Liquid Laundry Detergents

There’s a reason why liquid detergents are so popular—they’re highly effective at what they’re designed to do. Not only that, but they are super convenient. For one thing, they come all ready to be used in bottles; all you have to do is open the lid, measure the liquid, and pour it into the machine. If you want, you can even use it as a stain pre-treater or spot cleaner. 

Relatively inexpensive, one bottle of liquid detergent will last you many washes. It’s important to note, however, that they do have expiry dates. As a general rule, they are good for about six months upon opening; afterwards, the chemicals will start to degrade and break down.

Other advantages of liquid detergents:

  • They dissolve completely in water (i.e. they do not accumulate in clothing fibers)
  • They do not contain any substances that can accumulate in your machine
  • Liquids are easy to use and pour (i.e. they are not dusty)
  • Most contain less chemicals than powdered detergents—this makes them better for the environment
  • Many washing machines work better with liquid detergents
  • Less expensive than one-use laundry pods
  • Excellent for getting rid of oil and grease stains (liquid detergents penetrate deep into the fibers)

Disadvantages of Liquid Laundry Detergents

As wonderful as they may be, they do not have disadvantages. For instance, the measuring lines on the bottle cap can be hard to read; as a result, many people pour more detergent than they need. Not only does this lead to waste, but it can cause skin irritation as well (residue is leftover on the fabric even after being washed).

In addition to that, the plastic bottles are not environmentally friendly. While they can be recycled, most eventually end up at the landfill (not everyone participates in recycling programs). Over time, this can have a big impact on the environment. Speaking of sustainability, liquid detergents also contain a lot of water, which is heavy to transport; this causes more gases to be emitted into the atmosphere).

Other disadvantages of liquid laundry detergents:

  • Liquid laundry detergents are generally more expensive than their powdered counterparts
  • They can limit the effectiveness of other cleaning agents (e.g. bleach)
  • Their shelf life is shorter (six months)

More About Powdered Laundry Detergent

Powdered detergents, aka washing powders, were the first types of soap that people used for their laundry. By the time liquid formulas came to the market, they had already been used for many years. One of the first mass-marketed brands was Rinso, a type of soap powder that was released in 1908. 

history of powdered detergents

In the years afterwards, more and more companies began to produce powdered detergents. However, their popularity eventually plummeted with the released of liquid soaps. With that said, they are still used regularly by households today.

Ingredients of Powdered Detergents

Despite their different forms, powdered and liquid detergents contain many of the same ingredients. For instance, they all contain surfactants, which allow the compounds to penetrate deep into the fabric by reducing the water’s surface tension. More often than not, they also contain enzymes, brighteners, whiteners, and fragrances.

Advantages of Powdered Laundry Detergents

While they might not be as popular as they once were, powdered detergents are still effective cleaning agents. As a matter of fact, they are better than liquid detergents in several ways. For one thing, they are generally much more effective at removing stains (especially those old, stubborn spots). Not only that, but they are cheap—you can easily get a box for less than $10.

The pros don’t stop there, though—they are also much better for the environment. Instead of plastic bottles, powdered detergents come in cardboard boxes, which can easily be recycled. As a result, less goes to the landfill.

Other advantages of powdered laundry detergents:

  • Just as effective as liquid detergents
  • Takes up less space in storage
  • Generally more stable than liquid detergents
  • Ideal for those who live in areas with hard water
  • Less dyes are used

Disadvantages of Powdered Laundry Detergents

As you can expect, however, they also come with a number of disadvantages. Perhaps the greatest issue with these products is the fact that they don’t come pre-dissolved. Instead, you have to dissolve them yourself in water. If done incorrectly, residue can easily be left on clothing; this can lead to skin irritation and allergies.

adding powdered detergent to machine

Another thing to consider is that it tends to get airborne when you’re adding it to water; this makes them unsuitable for those with respiratory conditions. On top of that, the powders have a tendency of getting “stuck” in the crevices and corners of the washing machine, which can become a problem over time.

Other disadvantages of powdered laundry detergents:

  • They usually contain sodium sulphate, which is bad for the waterways
  • Has to be pre-dissolved in water to create a paste for pre-treating spots
  • Difficult to transport due to their weight (i.e. they have a larger impact on the environment)

Best Powder Detergent for Workout Clothing

When it comes to washing workout clothing, you want to use something that is suitable for synthetic fabrics. After all, most of the activewear out there is made from man-made fibers. Standard detergents are not recommended as they are not as effective at removing the dirt and oils and can actually harm your clothes.

Ideally, you’d want to use something like ACTIVE detergent, which is specially formulated to tackle bacteria and odors. Not only that, but it will protect your clothes from breaking and wearing down. On top of all that, it is organic, fragrance-free, and easy to use!

active detergent benefits

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