Three manufacturers clean up in the detergent aisle, tallying up nearly three-quarters of the money consumers spend on getting laundry clean, according to IRI, a market research firm. Procter & Gamble leads the pack, and their lineup includes Tide, Cheer, and Gain. Henkel follows and is best known for Persil, while Church and Dwight sell Arm & Hammer and Xtra detergents.
Liquid detergents remain the most popular type, and while pods are convenient to use, eliminating the need to measure, even the best pods, also known as packs, can’t match the cleaning power of CR’s top-rated liquid detergents. Pods are typically more expensive per load, too. Powders? Sales have dissolved, and few brands are on store shelves.
Top 5 Laundry Detergent
- Tide PODS consist of up to 90% active ingredients, so you can be sure that you're paying for clean...
- 10x the cleaning power* (*Stain Removal of 1 dose vs. 10X doses of the leading liquid bargain brand)
- Liquid laundry detergent with brilliant cleaning performance that leaves behind a refreshing Gain...
- 6 weeks of freshness from wash until wear.
- Leaves clothes powerfully clean and naturally fresh
- Works in both standard and he machines
- Safe for the whole family, these hypoallergenic single-use Mighty Pacs are gentle on skin.
- 100% free of perfumes and dyes and unscented, all Free Clear cleans your clothes without leaving...
- Gain Flings and Tide Pods are America's favorite laundry pacs.
- 2x the cleaning ingredients vs Gain Original Scent liquid laundry detergent.
The Trouble With Pods and Fabric Softeners
You won’t see any detergent pods or packs in CR’s ratings that make our recommended list. Why? CR does not recommend them at this time because of the risk they pose to young children and adults who are cognitively impaired. These highly concentrated single-load detergent packets are convenient to use, but between 2013 and 2018, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received an estimated 69,425 calls related to liquid laundry packet detergent exposure in children under age 6.
Exposure can occur in several ways: ingesting or inhaling it, getting it in the eyes, or absorbing it through the skin. CR doesn’t recommend the use of these liquid detergent packets in homes where children under 6 years old may be present.
Did You Know?
As early as 2012 Consumer Reports called on manufacturers to make pods and packets safer. Since then, many responded by switching from clear to opaque plastic containers, and now packaging on all major brands have child-resistant latches or closures. We’re also part of the committee that set a voluntary standard for the industry, which includes adding a bitter-tasting substance to the outer film of the detergent packets, and ensuring they’re tougher to burst when squeezed by young kids.
Softener is added to some detergents, which claim to clean and soften clothing in a single step. A caveat: We have long advised against the use of liquid fabric softener on children’s sleepwear and on any clothes that have been treated with a fire retardant. It’s been shown to reduce flame resistance.
Why use a laundry detergent
By itself, water alone will not remove oil and grease from clothing because oil and grease repel water molecules. This is why we need to add laundry detergent. Laundry detergent contains surfactants, which help the water pull away dirt and grease, break it up, and wash it away. Surfactants do another job too. They hold soils and fabric dyes in suspension and prevent them from being re-deposited back onto the cleaned laundry.
Important features to consider
Cost-effective: Americans wash 300 to 390 loads of laundry a year on average. Switching from a premium-priced to a more inexpensive detergent can help you save $50 a year. If you live in a larger household with more laundry, the savings can be even greater.
Versatile: A laundry detergent that is effective in all temperatures gives you the option to wash your clothes in cold water without sacrificing cleanliness. Generally available at the same price point, detergents formulated to wash in cold water save energy, prevent shrinking and fading and keeps dark clothes from bleeding dye onto lighter items. Cold water detergents can also be used in warm and hot water, so you can change temperatures without needing to change detergents.
Sensitive skin: Dyes and fragrances can cause rashes and skin allergies in certain individuals. Dye- and perfume-free laundry detergents (which often have the phrase “free and clear” on the label) are the best to use if you have sensitive skin or baby laundry to do.
Eco-friendly: All chemicals are added to detergents for a specific purpose, but some companies position themselves as eco-friendly. They avoid chemicals that are categorized as potentially harmful to our health and environment by the Environmental Protection Agency and/or the Environmental Working Group.
Scent: A lingering scent on your clean clothes tends to be a love it or hate it an option. The best smelling laundry detergent for one person may be the worst or overpowering for another. When it comes to laundry detergent, you have lots of choices, from free and clear to heavily scented.
HE safe: If you have a front-loading washer or high-efficiency top-loader, you’ll want to use a detergent specifically labeled for high-efficiency (HE) machines.
How do laundry detergents work?
Laundry detergents are made up of surfactants and builders. We went into detail about types of stains and how to remove them on our laundry stain remover review. Here’s a quick chemistry lesson to explain how surfactants (short for “surface active agents”) are the most important part of any cleaning agent.