Laundry Detergent & Products

Laundry Detergent – Seems like a no brainer, right?  From a strict financial viewpoint, you’ll want to get the most amount of loads from the least expensive detergent, assuming they all work well.  Maybe you’re going to make sure you get the best deal this time, though.  You‘re not going to rely on plain old brand loyalty.

You study the ads for a few weeks, comparing sizes and ounces and loads, go back over your receipts or price book to find out what you’ve paid in the past, do some figuring, check internet sites for who’s found the best deal where, sort your coupons, grab your calculator and head off to the store.

That’s fine until you go to the store and face a dizzying array of brands, sizes and colors and types.  Not only are there tons of them, every manufacturer has multiple sizes and types, often differing wildly in pricing.  Several of the manufacturer’s actually have several brands!

Some detergents tell you how many loads are in the bottle in a range (like 24 – 46 loads), some just have a single figure, and some don’t say at all, or if they do, it’s somewhere on the back in fine print.  So maybe you should figure by the ounce?  Can you?  All the caps are different shapes and sizes and hold different amounts.  The powders are nearly as bad.  How many ounces do you use for a load?

And as you look, you start to question.  The investment in decades of advertisement start to pay off for the manufacturer.  How well does the detergent work?  Does one product really work better than another?   Will one really make whites whiter or your clothes last longer?   Is that worth paying more for?  Can you just use a cheaper product and still save money?

What about stain removers, bleach, non-chlorine bleach?  What about the environmental impact?  Some manufacturers are heavily advertising how green they are. Some products tell you they are, or are even labeled so.  The sale and the coupon might get you a better ounce for ounce price on a smaller product but then you have to buy two jugs.  What’s the carbon imprint here?  Maybe the smaller jugs look more attractive to you because they are easier to cart, carry and pour?  Some of them say 2x or even 3x – are they really more concentrated?  Do they have more loads?  Should you consider making your own?

So while you’re debating this, your ice cream is melting, the cell is ringing, your cart is in the way of other patrons and they’re reaching around you, walking in front of you, or waiting for you.  Maybe your toddler is kicking and the baby is screaming, you have to pick up the kids and make dinner, and you make your decision.  Buy one of the big names if it’s on sale and looks like a good deal, especially if you have a coupon.  You know they work well. They’ve told you so and shown you proof on the TV since probably before you can remember.  If you’re watching your pennies, maybe you’ll buy one of the bigger, cheaper jugs on the bottom, and maybe you‘ll walk away feeling like you haven‘t bought the best and you and your family are going to be the ones in the faded, dingy clothes.

Most of all, though, you don’t want to think about it too much because who has the time and tenacity to figure it all out?  Just put those little nagging tendrils of question out of your mind.  It’s about enough to drive any sane person nuts.

Ah, grasshopper, I’ve never said anywhere on this site that I was sane have I?  Let’s figure this out:

First, though, consider your peace of mind:

  • If you like a certain brand and it makes you sleep better at night to know you‘re using it, buy it and don’t worry about the rest – but buy it knowing that few decisions you make in your life are based more on emotion than that simple purchase.

From our earliest childhood, probably even before we develop memory, most of us are exposed to commercials and advertisements claiming one detergent or another works better, is more American, is a purer product, smells better, is better for your family, and on and on and on.  We‘ve been shown side by side tests, comparisons, items that were washed multiple times and even the emotional scarring that wearing a faded or dingy shirt can have on our families and lives.

In reality, we don’t really know how they ran their tests, and how exactly are we going to base our image of fresh and pure on what is basically nothing more than jug of chemicals?  Some of our perceptions come from trust, built from an early age by these manufacturers but are those manufacturers really trustworthy?

Maybe you’ll do a little research on the net and see how they all compare.

How well do they work?

I can honestly say that I’ve used multiple laundry products since I started helping my mom with the laundry in the 60’s, and in the past 40 plus years, I have never noticed any significant advantage of one over the other.  I’ve raised children, gardened, had hobbies and am an active (and sometimes messy) cook and I’ve never had one single product that hasn’t needed a little help for the stubborn stains now and then.

Consumer Reports agrees with me, bless them, in their testing of 40 detergents done in 2009. Here’s what they say:

  • “Our tests show that some laundry detergents deal especially well with specific stains, such as ring around the collar, grass, tea, chocolate, or clay. But most people need a detergent that can tackle a wide range of common stains…All the detergents we tested cleaned reasonably well overall, with scores ranging from fair to very good.”

What about special features?

Consumer Reports lists the three main features of detergent to consider, paraphrased here, and cautioned consumers to be wary of special claims, such as odor, stains, protection of clothes after multiple washe, etc.:

  • Brighteners – give clothing bluish glow, giving impression of whiteness.  Can make clothing look faded, turn dark colors grey and change the look of cream-colored fabrics.
  • Bleach alternative, generally Sodium Perborate or Percarbonate. Both milder than chlorine bleach but work.
  • Some detergents that include a softener – tests of two such products indicated that the claim doesn’t wash. A caveat: CR has long advised against the use of liquid fabric softener on children’s sleep wear and on any clothes  treated with fire retardant – it’s been shown to reduce flame resistance.

Is it Green?

  • There is no federal classification as far as “greeness” goes, no checks or federal standards.  Detergents can claim to be non-toxic, plant-based, and even hypoallergenic.  A check of the label will indicate that they can indeed cause eye, skin or respiratory irritation.
  • Consider, also, if the item is phosphate free and biodegradable.  Does the product contain perfumes, dyes?   Is it tested on animals?  Some claim plant derived cleaning agents and enzymes, but whether these are actually green or not is beyond the scope of my consideration (how grown, how much energy to process, etc. compared to the manufactured agents would certainly factor in to this,)
  • The more concentrated products use smaller containers, less fuel for shipping, less corrugated cardboard, etc.  Whether this is green or not  is of course, dependent on how much of it you use!  Measure carefully.  A capful is usually NOT the measurement you should use, and some caps seems to be designed to encourage you to use more.  This can lead to additional rinsing, build up of detergents in the washer causing smells and odors, and can even cause machine failure, especially in high efficiency machines.  That’s never green. Use between a tablespoon and two tablespoons depending on load size.

Bottom Line:

There is no easy, one fits all answer. Do your investigation and buy what you are most comfortable with. Most basic, inexpensive detergents do the job as well as the name brands, and all, name brand or not, are going to need a little extra help with stains. It makes sense to buy the less expensive detergents and use a product for stains now and then. Use much, much less detergent than the manufacturer recommends! Use coupons and specials to lower the price.

Consumer Reports best buy for High Efficiency Washers in their 2009 testing? “Gain Original Fresh HE which costs 6 cents per load is a CR Best Buy.  It was impressive at cleaning, costs far less and was the top pick among powders for its fine performance on grass and bloodstains.”

My 12 hints for reducing cost of laundry:  (Okay, it’s 14, but I got carried away!)

Soon to come, Home Made Laundry Detergent.

Comments and discussion always welcome - tell me what you think.

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