Does More Detergent Make for More Clean?

By Philip Brewer on 19 November 2009 (Updated 17 May 2010) 39 comments

Given the number of posts at frugality sites on how to make your own cleaning supplies (and the number of reads those posts get), the topic is obviously one of interest to the community. My take is that there's an easier way to save money on cleaning supplies than making your own: Use less.

It may not take a genius to observe that using less saves money, but it does take more than average awareness to see through all the ways manufacturers get you to use too much, and to see just how much less is actually enough.

Laundry detergent

For example, how much detergent does it take to get your clothes clean? The answer depends on how dirty they are. If you've been working (or playing) hard outdoors, it may take quite a bit. If you've been repairing bicycles or rebuilding engines or working as a fry cook, it may take even more. But if you've been sitting at home or working in a cubicle, it doesn't actually take much.

Plus, the fact is, using more detergent than you need makes your clothes less clean, because some of it stays behind in your clothes.

I first learned about this back in the mid-1990s, when several companies started marketing these ceramic disks that supposedly cleaned your laundry without detergent. Many people who tried them found that they seemed to work, but only for a while. Eventually, people figured out that what was happening was that there was enough detergent left in clothes from previous launderings to get the clothes clean, even if you just washed them in water, until everything in the load has been run through a cycle or two without added detergent.

Mull that over for a minute: Even after rinsing, there's still enough detergent left in your clothes to wash them again. That little detergent — the amount left behind after the rinse cycle in your washer — is all it takes to get your clothes clean.

Once I internalized that, I started using much, much less laundry detergent. For ordinary amounts of dirt, a quarter of the recommended quantity is plenty. For clothing that has only been worn indoors, just an eighth is probably enough. Not only will small amounts get your clothes clean, they'll be more clean, because they'll have a lot less detergent left in the fabric.

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Obviously the manufacturer's incentives are to recommend using more. Not only do people who use more buy more, but it reduces the chance that you'll lose respect for the product due to having load of especially dirty laundry come out less than completely clean.

All your other cleaning supplies

Much the same is true of all your other cleaning supplies.

How much shampoo does it take to get your hair clean? It depends on how oily your hair is (and how much hair you have), but it doesn't take a lot to get hair clean. (And if you don't strip every last little bit of oil out of your hair by washing it twice, you may find that you don't need to add oil back in the form of hair conditioner.)

How much toothpaste is enough? The ADA recommends a pea-sized amount for children. (They suggest that adults use "just enough" to cover the length of the bristles on their toothbrush, but I expect that was due to pressure from the toothpaste manufacturers.)

In the kitchen and bathroom it's particularly easy to start with just a little and then add more if things aren't getting clean.

Using less doesn't just save money; it's also gentler on the planet. It uses less natural resources to make the stuff, package it, and ship it to you; it exposes you to a smaller dose of the chemicals involved, and dumps less of them into the environment.

Experiment with using less — and not just a little less. Start with using half as much. If things still get clean, cut by half as much again. Personally, I find that about one-quarter of the recommended amount is usually a lot closer to the right amount than what the manufacturer recommends.

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Financial Samurai's picture

Hmmm... good point about leaving the residue behind for powdered detergent.

I donno though, I love putting in a little extra to clean my clothes, but I use liquid detergent now, so no more residue!

I want my clothes to smell like an aroma bomb (in a good way of course)!

Keigu,

Financial Samurai
"Slicing Through Money's Mysteries"

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Financial Samurai:

Detergents are kinda cool.  They're a long molecule that's oil-soluble at one end (so it dissolves grease) and water-soluble at the other (so the grease can be rinsed away in water).  The amount of detergent you need depends entirely on the amount of grease in whatever you're washing--once you've got enough to rinse away all the oil, adding more won't make the clothes cleaner.

However, modern laundry detergents contain a lot of other ingredients--soaps (to reduce surface tension, so that water droplets can get into tight spaces, such as between the fibers in fabric), enzymes that break down proteins (to remove stains from things like chocolate and blood), fluorescent chemicals that glow under ultraviolet light (to make fabric "brighter"), and, of course, perfumes (to produce the aroma-bomb effect you want).

You'll notice that some of those chemicals are intended to remain behind after you rinse your clothes, but the others stay behind too, so don't imagine that using liquid detergent means that there'll be no residue. Try this experiment:  Run a load of laundry with your clothes but no detergent at all, then peak into the washer in the middle of the wash cycle.  You'll see plenty of suds--meaning that there was plenty of detergent left in your clothes from last time.

Anyhow, I don't mean to tell anyone what result they ought to go for.  I just want to encourage people to experiment with using less, because when I did that experiment, I found that things got clean with a lot less.

Guest's picture
Jonathan

Look at the cap on your liquid laundry detergent. Chances are that you have been using more than the manufacturer even recommends. I have started reading instructions on packaging because as they make things more concentrated, we as consumers don't always cut back on the amount used. I sent this very message to my email group recently.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Jonathan:

Good point.  Manufacturers try to have it both ways.  They give you a big cap with a little line showing the "recommended" amount of detergent.  That way you tend to use way too much (because the cap is big), but they can still point to the line and say, "Well, we only recommend that you use this much."

Even when the recommended amount is small, it's still going to be enough to clean clothes that are pretty dirty.  If all you did while wearing your clothes was sit in a cubicle for eight hours, you're going to need a lot less detergent even than the small recommended amount.

Guest's picture
josh anthony

For what it's worth it's been over a decade since I've used detergent for most loads. I had seen a report on the news (one of those shame on you kinda things) where they actually did a test using the recommended amount of soap and then a half dose. Not surprisingly the half dose got clothes cleaner pretty much for the reason you've described. The surprising thing was they then tested that against using no soap at all and no soap got the clothes just as clean! The only caveat is that this works only if clothes are not stained, if they are then they still had to be pre-treated.

So like I said it's been a long time since I've used detergent and besides my clothes not being "perfumed" I notice no difference at all and nobody else has ever noticed either and as an added benefit my clothes now seem to last much longer.

Philip Brewer's picture

 @ josh anthony:

Yep.  Most kinds of soil (dirt, sweat) will just rinse out with water.  It's only if your clothes have gotten greasy or stained that you need detergent.  Your skin produces some amount of oil, of course, but it doesn't take much detergent to get that out.  (If you use a coin operated machine there's probably enough detergent left behind from the previous customer to clean clothes that just have sweat and skin oil.)

Guest's picture

Unless you are covered in feces and grease every day, I don't use detergent on our clothes

Sweat, a bit of oil, and a bit of dirt all comes out with the agitation of the machine.

Some people in countries use stones to knock out the dirt, without any soap at all.

I don't use detergent unless I really have to.

Guest's picture
jbd

This works in my dishwasher too- I buy those tablets with the red ball and cut them in half.

Guest's picture
Cat

I only use about a tablespoon-ful of HE detergent in my front loading washer. But it's not totally about being frugal.

Once we got front-loaders, I found our laundry tended to smell "sour" whenever it got wet. Bathroom towels began to stink after just a use or two, and sometimes even after washing the laundry, it would still come out with remnants of that sour smell.

The fix was simple AND frugal: Use way less detergent, and use white vinegar as the "softener" agent in the washer, with 4-8 sprays of vinegar in place of a dryer sheet in the dryer. The result is clean clothes that smell like clean clothes, not like perfume and not sour.

My theory is that smells were developing from build up of laundry detergent and fabric softener in the wash, and then use of a dryer sheet in the dryer to prevent static cling.

The beauty of white vinegar is that it cuts through buildup like that, and rinses well. And when vinegar is rinsed out, or dried in the dryer, the benefits are left behind without the smell.

The $$ I have saved on laundry detergent, and by cutting out commercial fabric softeners and dryer sheets, has been a great side benefit...

Guest's picture
Guest

@Cat--I saw a report on the news the other day that mildew tends to collect in the front gasket of front load washers. Do an internet search on it, and you'll get a lot of hits for mold/mildew front load washers. That might explain the sour smell you're describing.

Guest's picture
Cat

It might, but the smell is gone now that I've switched to vinegar instead of softener and use less detergent. I'll give the whole thing a good once-over anyway, since I also read an article about clogged, nasty bits in the front loaders today too. :)

Guest's picture
J

Amen to the "use less detergent". Modern detergents aren't the villainous substances some people claim, but they are very powerful and should be used in moderation.

The manual on my high-efficiency washer actually suggests regular cleanings by running the washer on empty with chlorine bleach on a regular basis and by drying off the gasket and door after every load.

That may be a bit excessive, though. I just remove the soap tray and leave the door open after each wash so that it can dry out on its own.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I used to use a high-speed spin dryer before I got my HE dryer.  I used it to get much of the water out of my clothes before hanging them on the line (saved much time.)  I noticed that no matter how little laundry soap I used, there were always soap bubbles and film being extracted along with the water.  Gross.

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

Excellent article. I also use a minimum of detergent and unlike my friends have not have washing machine problems.

I want to add that using too much soap, paste or detergent for dishes, hair, teeth etc. means that the detergent won't get diluted properly (check your sink after brushing your teeth) and won't do the job as well.
And it will take a considerable amount of water to rinse off the extra soap.

Guest's picture
HB

Interesting post! I will try using less detergent!

I've been washing with cold water only for months and everything seems to get clean fine. I saw an ad on TV recently for some detergent that is supposed to be for cold water specifically.. They advertise, buy our detergent and then use cold water to save on energy.. Clever marketing move in times like this? I wonder if there really is any difference between regular detergent and their new cold water type.

I always look forward to your posts! Great writing style, and interesting topics to read about :)

Thanks!

Guest's picture
Des

@HB

We always wash in cold water and have never used special detergents. Its just a gimmick.

Guest's picture
peeceebee

I use barely drops of stuff for everything. Liquid detergent is concentrated and goes a LONG way. A tube of toothpaste lasts like a year...maybe more. A dime-sized drop of shampoo will lather up more than I can take it and no, I don't repeat after rinse. Of course any mfg will want you to use as much as possible. What a shock!

If you are too lazy to figure it out (as I am), just start out by reducing the recommended amount by half and it will likely still be too much. Reduce more from there until it feels like it's not working and there you have your threshold. I will try out the cold water. Never thought of that.

Guest's picture
MrsDeeLandlady

Funny. I don 't use shampoo anymore, because it tangles, has sulfides and removes too much of my natural oils. I use conditioners only to wash my hair.

I use less detergent with 40 Mules and vinegar in the rinse cycle. Everything comes clean. But, I never though of using no detergent. It's interesting to know the difference between detergent, soaps, astringents, et al.

We use cloth napkins only in our house and I only use 40 Mules and vinegar on those. Nice. Thanks for the article! Now, if I can only convince the kids to use less.

Guest's picture
Cat

Interesting that today there's an article on MSNBC about how using more detergent and softener products can stink up your front-loading washer.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33997384/ns/business-consumer_news/page/2/

Guest's picture
S. Carvalho

I've noticed you need way less dishwashing liquid than the smallest amount squeezable out of the bottle since it's so concentrated. So the last bottle bought I diluted half and half with water and it's way better, easy to get a squirt and not a huge waste of soap to do a few dishes. Still pretty soapy though, so I'm thinking next time I'll do 1/4 liquid 3/4 water.

Guest's picture
Beth

Interesting post! I've got sensitive skin, so I try to keep the detergent amounts low so I get the best rinsing power. For stains, I use an all natural pre-treating soap bar or a bit of dish soap (for food and grease stains). My mom uses cheap shampoo instead of detergent for pillow cases.

Oddly enough, I find that a little more than a pea-sized amount of toothpaste works better for me than a brush full!

Guest's picture
Guest

The fragrance in detergent is compounded with especially persistent solvents so it stays in during washing and rinsing. Then it comes out while you are wearing the clothes, and hurts the people you meet. You are trying to do something good, but it produces a bad result. So the fragrance-free version of detergent is worth using even if it doesn't save you any money.

Guest's picture
Diane

I only use about 1/3 the amount of detergent called for in my front-loader and it cleans great. Plus I always add about 1/4 cup Borax to it. It's been cleaning MUCH better since I started doing this. Borax is way cheaper than bleach, brightens better, enhances cleaning, and is like $3 for a huge box that will last you 6 months to a year.

Guest's picture
Lucille

I started replacing commercial products with home made ones or looked for ways to reduce the use of them last year.

I switched to distilled vinegar and water as all purpose cleaner. That combined with using microfiber rags saved us a ton of money in the last year. I need to calculate how much we saved in cleaners and paper towels but it was significant.

I started diluting our dish soap with 1/4 distilled water. It is already highly concentrated so the water helps you waste less because it pours easier. The distilled water helps it from going rancid due to the water added. I do the same with liquid hand soap. It makes it come out of the dispenser easier plus both save 1/4 on your usage plus whatever from not accidentally using too much like when it was concentrated.

We used a super concentrated laundry soap but it was impossible to get it all out of our clothes even using 1/4 of the suggested amount. We switched to Seventh Generation. It is more expensive but we only need to use about a tablespoon for a large load of clothes. We noticed the reduction in how much we used meant our clothes felt less "crunchy" when you hung them to dry. We also noticed people in the house getting fewer skin rashes.

I quit buying toothpaste and instead use a mix of baking soda, sea salt and essential oil. After a year of doing these I have no desire to go back so I really am not depriving myself of anything.

Guest's picture
Guest

About a year ago, I bought an HE washing machine, and, of course, have been buying HE detergent. With all the above posts about using less detergent, has anyone tried using regular detergent in their HE machines....but of course, much less? I haven't...though the thought has occurred to me.

Guest's picture
GT0163C

This also works for things like fabric softeners. I use dryer sheets and have been ripping them into thirds or quarters for years (when I had easy access to a band saw, I used to cut a full box into quarters and put the sheets into a plastic bag). With my sensitive skin and dislike of extra scents on my clothes, this works great.

For dishwasher and clothes detergents the amount needed is also dependent on the hardness of your water.

Another way to use less detergent is to wash clothing less. If what I'm wearing didn't get stinky or dirty, I'll wear it again before washing. I get two to three wearings of button down shirts (worn with a t-shirt underneath) before washing. Similarly, I'll wear a t-shirt that I've only worn for a few hours after showering after the gym for multiple days before tossing it in the hamper.

Guest's picture
Guest

Have you tried white vinegar in the rinse cycle? When my son was born, and I used cloth diapers (1978), I didn't want to risk all those softening/scenting chemicals on a baby's bottom (via the diaper).

I can't remember where I found out about vinegar, but it makes an excellent fabric softener and leaves no scent (especially not a vinegary one).

I've used it for years, and I'd never go back (also way cheaper)!

Some others have mentioned it above also...

Guest's picture
Guest

I have been using less detergent for years and that is in my top loading machine. I read the forums over at gardenweb and the laundry room forum everyone recommends 1 Tablespoon for a large load in a front loading machine. This is of regular detergent and the non HE variety. The only difference between regular detergent and HE detergents is the addition of a foam reducer in the HE version. Also, those with front loaders should know if you use too much detergent it builds up inside the outer part of the drum and you can get a pretty moldy build up. Using liquid detergents seem to build up worse than powdered versions. The use of vinegar does help cut the scum build up in your clothing. The reason why vinegar works is because if you don't have a build up of detergents in your clothing they will not get stiff. I hang dry all of my laundry and I find less is so much better at keeping my clothes soft.

I am one of those people that I will wear clothing several times before washing with the exception of socks and underwear for obvious reasons.

One thing I do advise against though, is cutting product with water to make it go further. I do formulary (but more for bath and body products) and by adding water it throws off the preservative in a product and bacteria and molds grow in those products. Just because you can't see or smell it in those products doesn't mean it isn't there. There are some bacterias that can cause blindness so trying to save yourself 50 cents over a year isn't worth your eyesight. Just buy the cheapest shampoo and use a smaller amount, etc. Same goes for any liquid product.

Guest's picture
Guest

Shot glass or jigger measure for laundry detergent is the perfect amount for a front load washer. One shot equals one ounce.

Guest's picture
Chris

How much shampoo is required? None. Unless you manage to get actual dirt of some kind in your hair. The oil secreted by the scalp actually cleans the hair; human hair is self-cleaning! Washing all that oil out with shampoo on a regular basis prompts your scalp to produce more oil, which is why if you regularly wash with shampoo and then stop for a while your hair will get greasy (and probably itchy and smelly). After a while though, your scalp adjusts, and reverts to its natural state of producing just enough cleansing oil.

I haven't washed my hair with anything other than clean water for over a year, and it's no more greasy or dirty than it was a day after my last shampoo. I discovered this because I am sensitive to one of the ingredients in most shampoos and so using shampoo caused me to have an itchy, flaky scalp. Since a month or so after I stopped, I've had no more itches and far fewer flakes.

Guest's picture
Mia

It's true, you don't need much detergent to get things really clean. I always water down the face cleaner that I use because it seems like a waste using it straight (plus, it is too harsh on my skin).

Guest's picture
Guest

Some of the soap for dishes and clothes is not only to get the oil off the clothes but to counteract hard water. I am not an expert on this nor do I fully understand what happened but I was one to use 1/2 the dish detergent and the dishwasher stopped cleaning. We were scared we had broken it and were dreading a service call. After a bit of time with a screw driver, a shop vac, vinegar, a store bought "dishwasher cleaner", a change in detergent brand and using the recommended amount of soap the dishwasher began working properly again. We suspect there was a build up of hard water somewhere due to not using enough detergent. We avoided the service call and replacement this time, we'd prefer to avoid it in the future as well.
Plus my dog started stealing my 'clean' underwear so I decided the clothes must not be as clean as I thought they were getting with less detergent.
I'm not saying don't use less...just be mindful of potential (and potentially more costly) after effects.
(Cool halloween effect is to do handprints of detergent (that has the fluorescent phosphorous) on a sheet or towel then put it under blacklight! Just wash to clean.)

Guest's picture
Karen

As mentioned in an earlier comment, the water type, hard or soft, does make a difference as to how much detergent or soap you should use. My folks live in an area where the water is very hard and they have to use more soap than I do, as I live in an extremely soft water area. Call the local water company to find out what type of water you have. This affects washing machines and dishwashers.
As for making my own laundry detergents, I researched this subject and decided to buy Charlie's Soap instead. For the cost and time of making my own detergent, I can buy Charlie's Soap for about the same cost. The other reasons being:
Charlie's Soap costs me about 2 cents per load compared to the blue stuff at 12 cents per load. The recommended amount is 1 ounce per load, but in the soft water, I use 1/2 ounce.
It works perfectly in my front loader HE machine and does not leave a build-up in the machine or the clothes.
Every other detergent I have tried, other than the special ones (and expensive ones) for sensitive skin, always made me break out in a rash. This soap does not do that. There are no perfumes or dyes.
I also use distilled white vinegar for a fabric softener. Much cheaper, and the clothes are much cleaner. Vinegar will not only deter static cling, but will rid the clothes of any remaining soap, so there is no build-up and hence, no stiffness. I hang most of the laundry on lines or racks and even the jeans are pliable with just vinegar for rinsing.
Borax is not as harsh on fabrics as chlorine bleach but cleans just as well and is much cheaper.

Guest's picture
Guest

"Using less doesn't just save money; it's also gentler on the planet. It uses less natural resources to make the stuff, package it, and ship it to you; it exposes you to a smaller dose of the chemicals involved, and dumps less of them into the environment."

On the other hand, making your own beats the pants off commercial detergents (even using smaller quantities) for all of the reasons you listed above.

Guest's picture
Wendy

Laundry disks do not work by tricking people. I've used them for over a decade with results equal to detergent (minus the smell). You cannot tell me that for over 10 years there has been detergent residue in my clothing that has been cleaning them. Even my husband's work jeans come out clean with just the disks.

Guest's picture

I had never considered this. If you use 1/4th as much, your container will last 4x longer. I wonder if that works for floor cleaners too.... I'm going to have to go home and try it!

Guest's picture

I've begun using less, and I notice my clothes smell less. It's kind of the opposite of what you'd think would happen, but it works. Great post!

Guest's picture
sewingirl

I still wash my Hubbys work clothes in warm water. I tried cold, but it just doesn't get the grease and manure stains and smells out. I did cut way back on the amount of det used tho, one tablespoon for regular loads, two for dirty stuff seems to work pretty good. I am a TIDE gal, using the reduced amount, and watching for sales and coupons keeps the price under control enough that I haven't been too tempted to try the homemade stuff, yet.

Guest's picture
objecpers

Its a shame that manufacturers try to get you to use more of their product than what is necessary, or even beneficial. It is all just a game to make them more money. They don't make products to make your life easier, or comfortable. They do it to make money. It is an unfortunate aspect of capitalism. Money should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.