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Laundry detergents

Laundry detergent buying guide

Last updated: October 2013

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Getting started

Getting started

Once you get past all the fragrance options, choosing a laundry detergent is getting a little easier. More, though not all, high-efficiency powders, liquids, and single-use packs can be used in conventional washers. That's good news because the best high-efficiency formulas cleaned better than many conventional detergents in our latest tests. Most conventional detergents can't be used in high-efficiency machines.

Ever-shrinking packages

Detergents are coming down in size. Many single-use packs can fit in the palm of your hand thanks to their highly concentrated formulas. Other detergent containers are also shrinking. For example, a 50-ounce, 32-load bottle of the new 2X Tide weighs less than four pounds, while its unconcentrated 100-ounce, 32-load predecessor tips the scales at more than seven pounds, according to the manufacturer.

Manufacturers tout the environmental benefits of new concentrated detergents. The packages require less plastic for bottles, less corrugated cardboard for crating, and less fuel for the trucks that deliver the detergent to the stores. Retailers are benefiting too. Walmart, the largest retailer of detergents and market leader Proctor & Gamble's biggest customer, has been pushing manufacturers to reduce volume to allow a wider array of models and brands on store shelves. Whatever the incentives, sales of concentrated detergents are booming, according to the marketing research company ACNielsen.

But with single-use packs in particular, safety is a concern, since the packs can be especially harmful if ingested or rubbed into eyes. Poison-control centers have logged more than 9,500 reports of ingestion and other contact involving children 5 years or younger since early 2012, when pods went mainstream. Eye contact can result in serious injury, and ingestion can lead to vomiting and has caused some victims to stop breathing suddenly.

P&G is replacing the clear container for its colorful Tide Pods with an opaque version that has a double-latch lid, a resealable sticker over the lid, and warning icons on the package. (The company says it expects the original clear container to be unavailable by the end of 2013.) Costco told us that, like Procter & Gamble, its Kirkland Signature Ultra Clean Pacs will be sold in opaque container with enhanced safety icons in August 2013, with a child-deterrent lid to follow in early 2014.

We hope those changes will make a difference, but we're still concerned that the tasty-looking pods will find their way into children's hands. We continue to urge detergent manufacturers to adopt child-resistant packaging for all pods--and stop making them look like candy. Retailers should improve in-store signs to better alert consumers to the dangers of pods.

Does oxi have moxie?

You'll find lots of claims for "oxi" or "oxy" cleaning power. However it's spelled, having it doesn't ensure better cleaning. Made from sodium percarbonate, oxi is a color-safe bleach found in many powder detergents. That includes some detergents that don't list oxi their packages or ingredients. You'll also see it under the trademark OxiClean, the additive owned by Church & Dwight, which makes Arm & Hammer. Certain liquid detergents also come with oxi claims, even though they don't use percarbonate. Our advice: Pick a detergent that cleaned up in our tests, even if it's oxi-free.

Tougher tests

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.

CR's tough tests of more than 60 laundry detergents also revealed that more brands are pricing low-sudsing, high-efficiency detergents designed for front-loading and high-efficiency top-loading washers comparably with those for top-loaders. We compare conventional and HE detergents on the same scale.

All the detergents we tested cleaned reasonably well overall, with scores ranging from fair to very good. None of the products we tested use nonylphenol ethoxylates, chemicals that help to get clothes clean but that are toxic to aquatic plants and animals.

Don't waste detergent

Household habits can be hard to break. While single-use packs make proper dosage simpler for average-size loads, it's all too easy to inadvertently waste the new 2X and 3X concentrated products by using the same amounts you added of the old products. Remember to follow the directions on the packaging and actually measure--the best detergents have clearly marked lines on their fill caps and pictures of the actual caps on their instructions.

The bottom line

To compare prices of detergents, divide the total cost by the promised number of loads and forget about volume. Hard water will require more detergent; check the label for any hard-water instructions.

Types

Read the label to make sure the type of the laundry detergent you use is best for the type washing machine you own. Different formulas are available as liquids, powders, and single-use packs or pods. Here are the main types.

High-efficiency detergents


Washing-machine manufacturers generally recommend HE products for front-loading washers and high-efficiency top-loaders, which use less water than most top-loaders. More and more HE detergents can be used in conventional washers, though.

Conventional detergents


These are usually best for conventional top-loading machines, where low-sudsing HE formulas might be too weak.

Dual-use detergents

Manufacturers of these detergents claim that they are safe and effective in all washing machines.

Features


Confusion can set in at the market when you are confronted with myriad formulations that promise loads that are Brighter! Softer! Cleaner! Here are the laundry detergent features to consider.

Optical brighteners

These generally give clothes a bluish glow, giving the impression of whiteness. Use detergents with brighteners judiciously; they can make dark clothing look faded.

Bleach alternatives

This is P&G's name for its bleach additive. Bleach alternative is generally Sodium Perborate or Sodium Percarbonate. Both are milder than sodium hypochlorite (aka chlorine bleach), but they work.

Organic formulas

Many laundry detergent manufacturers make green claims. Rockin' Green Classic Rock even calls itself "vegan" and "gluten free." But it flubbed our grass and body-oil tests. Though there's no federal standard for terms such as "natural" and "earth friendly", there is a Department of Agriculture organic standard, which requires at least 95 percent organic ingredients for its "Organic" seal. Performance has been an issue so far for those products we've tested that meet the standard, but that could change as manufacturers fine tune their organic formulas.

Fabric softener

You can buy fabric softener (also called fabric conditioner) separately as a liquid or in sheet form. Added to the drier, it can reduce static cling and make fabric feel softer. Some detergents that include a softener claim to clean and soften clothing "in a single step" by eliminating the need to add softener separately. But our 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 sleepwear and on any clothes that have been treated with fire retardant. It's been shown to reduce flame resistance.

Brands

All arrow  |  Arm & Hammer arrow  |  Cheer arrow  |  Gain arrow  |  Method arrow  |  Purex arrow  |  SA8 arrow  |  Seventh Generation arrow  |  Tide arrow  |  WIN arrow

The following are the top five liquid laundry detergents listed in order of market share. Use these profiles to compare laundry detergents by brand.

All

Sun Products Corporation's All Small & Mighty formula has a brand share of 11 percent. The All Small & Mighty 3X Concentrated detergent is available in 64- and 32-ounce sizes and with a variety of ingredients and fragrances for specific uses, such as Stainlifter, Free & Clear HE, and Fresh Rain HE.

Arm & Hammer

Arm & Hammer, owned by Church & Dwight, holds an 8.25 percent share. New Arm & Hammer 2X Concentrated laundry detergent is available in conventional and HE formulations and also in a Free of Perfume and Dye formula.

Cheer

Cheer is a Proctor & Gamble product. It is available in HE and standard formulations. Special formulations include Original Color Guard and 2X Ultra Dark Formula Color Guard for conventional and high-efficiency washers.

Gain

Gain, which is owned by Proctor & Gamble, holds a market share of 7 percent. New Ultra Gain 2X Concentrated is available in conventional and high efficiency, and a variety of scents and ingredients for specific uses.

Method

Method HE has a triple-concentrated formula, is phosphate-free and biodegradable, and can be used to pre-treat laundry. Method is a "green" product that can be used in conventional and high-efficiency washing machines.

Purex

Purex has brand share of 12.5 percent. Dial Corporation launched New Purex Ultra Concentrate 2X liquid in 2007. The New Ultra Purex is 2X more concentrated than regular Purex, and the 50-ounce package does 32 loads. It’s available in conventional and HE formulas and with additional ingredients such as Purex Plus Fabric Softener, Purex Ultra Concentrate plus Renuzit Fresh Scent, and Purex UltraConcentrate HE After the Rain.

SA8

SA8 Premium with "bioquest" is an Amway product. It is super concentrated with biodegradable cleaning agents and biological enzymes. It can be used in standard or high-efficiency machines.

Seventh Generation

Seventh Generation is a major brand in the "green" product category that has plant-derived cleaning agents and enzymes. Formulations include Natural Powder HE, which can also be used in conventional washers.

Tide

Tide is the leading brand in liquid laundry detergent with a 28 percent share. In 2007 Proctor & Gamble introduced a full replacement of its liquid laundry detergent lineup, which includes Tide and Gain. The new 2X concentrated formulation provides the same number of loads in a more compact bottle. Tide also makes a wide variety of different detergents for specific uses: HE, Coldwater, Totalcare, Tide With a Touch of Downy, and Tide Ultra with Dawn Stainscrubbers are just a few formulas.

WIN

Win claims that its high-performance sport detergent is designed to target offensive odors and stains. The oxy-cleaning technology is supposed to eliminate embedded sweat molecules and odors from athletic gear and other clothing.

Cleaning tips

Pens, crayons, and chocolate are some of the things that people have accidentally left in pockets, according to our Facebook followers and staff. The results weren't pretty. Couple that with the fact that fabrics and washers have changed, and your laundry routine may need an update. So we asked manufacturers and our laundry and fabric experts for their latest tips. Start by following the instructions on garment labels, then try the following:

Chocolate-covered laundry

Use your machine's soak cycle and one of our higher-rated detergents that's very good at removing chocolate, such as Wisk Deep Clean Free & Pure, a detergent that can be used in HE and conventional machines. Then wash. Don't put the item into the dryer until you're satisfied with the stain removal. If the stained clothes have already been in the dryer, it will be even more difficult to remove stains, so you might have to repeat this process.

Clothes with spandex

Skip the chlorine bleach; it can damage spandex. (So can a very hot iron.) If you paid extra for jeans with special fading or a distressed finish, turn them inside out before washing and pull up the zipper; its teeth can get caught on other clothing.

Ink and crayon marks

To tackle ballpoint-pen marks, place a clean white paper towel under the stain, then blot a small spot with rubbing alcohol and another piece of paper towel. Keep blotting the stain with a clean part of each paper towel over and under the stain until it is gone, then launder. For crayons, Crayola suggests scraping off as much as possible, then working liquid dish soap into the stain. (Do that and the following steps on an inconspicuous spot first.) Wait several minutes, then rub the fabric under warm water to remove the stain. Machine-wash using the heavy-soil setting, with the hottest water the care label recommends, and OxiClean. Air-dry the item and repeat if necessary.

Rogaine-stained pillowcases

A reader alerted us that Rogaine, an FDA-approved topical treatment used to help regrow hair, stains his pillowcases after he applies it at bedtime. Try soaking pillowcases in white vinegar for 15 to 30 minutes, then toss them in the washer with detergent but no bleach. Repeat if needed. Line dry.

Small stuffed animals

If there are no glued-on parts, wash using the gentle cycle in cold water and with a mild detergent, then put in the sun or another warm place to dry.

Sneakers

Nike and Keds say on their websites not to machine-wash or machine-dry their shoes. A Converse online video shows how to clean your sneakers by hand. Given the high price of sneakers, be sure to follow the manufacturer's cleaning guidelines.

Waterproof items

Consult your manual or call customer service if you have an HE top-loader. The sticker on our top-rated high-efficiency Samsung top-loader said not to wash or spin waterproof seats, mats, or clothing. That's because waterproof or water-resistant items increase the chance of loads becoming unbalanced, which can cause excessive shaking and can damage the dryer and laundry area. In December LG recalled about 457,000 LG and Kenmore Elite HE top-loaders made by LG after it received at least 343 reports of washers that vibrated excessively. More than half caused minor property damage, and one minor injury was reported, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Wool sweaters

First check for any decorations--water can damage them. Some HE models have a wool cycle. If the garment label says you can hand-wash, you might be able to use a wool-wash cycle. Then lay flat to dry.

   

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