Detergent debate: How many types do you really need?

  • Living
  • Monday, 27 Nov 2023

How many different types of detergents sit in the cabinet above your washing machine, and how many do you really use? — Photos: CHRISTIN KLOSE/dpa

DETERGENTS, additives and special products for cleaning laundry fill several metres of shelves in supermarkets. This comes on top of the wide variety of liquids, powders, gels and pastes for removing stains, not to mention the sheer endless choice of fabric softeners. Do we really need them all?

No, is the clear answer of the experts. Most special products are unnecessary, they say. You only need three types of detergent for fresh and clean laundry, according to a German consumer advice centre: a heavy-duty detergent for whites, a colour detergent for coloured fabrics and a delicate detergent for wool and delicates.

This not only matters to your pocket, but also to the environment – because the less detergent we use, the less ends up in the waste water.

However, the experts warn, there is no such thing as a single detergent for everything – washing delicate items made of wool or silk with a white or colour detergent can go horribly wrong. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of clothing and which detergent you should use when washing them.

Heavy-duty detergents in powder form contain bleaching agents and brighteners.Heavy-duty detergents in powder form contain bleaching agents and brighteners.

Heavy-duty detergent for light-coloured cotton and linen

Light-coloured bed linen, towels or table cloths made of cotton and linen call for an all-purpose or heavy-duty detergent, says Bernd Glassl from German industry association IKW.

“Heavy-duty detergents are best used in powder form because they contain bleaching agents and brighteners. This keeps the laundry nice and white.” Liquid products usually do not contain bleach, he says.

Doing a load of whites or towels at 60 degrees Celsius at least once a month using a heavy-duty detergent also helps to keep your washing machine clean, says Claudia Oberascher from a German consumer initiative. This eliminates the bacteria that can settle in the machine if you normally wash at lower temperatures, potentially causing unpleasant odours there.

Colour detergent for colours and darks

“Coloured laundry is cleaned gently with a special colour detergent. In contrast to normal washing powder, it contains no bleaching agents and no optical brighteners,” says Glassl. That means the colours of the clothes do not fade.

Special products for wool and silkFor particularly delicate items made of wool Glassl recommends using a special detergent, which in most cases, he says, is also suitable for natural silk.

Most delicate detergents contain enzymes that can attack wool or silk, and they are too alkaline. “It’s best to look at the label of the item of clothing and choose the detergent accordingly,” Glassl says.

Delicate detergents for delicate textiles

Delicate detergents are the right choice when it comes to delicate garments like blouses or shirts. “Their focus is on protecting the material,” says Glassl. “They lather more,” meaning fewer spins are needed to clean your laundry which helps to reduce the strain on the material, according to the expert.

Liquid detergents are usually colour-safe.Liquid detergents are usually colour-safe.

Powder, liquid, tabs or pods?

Detergents are available in different forms – as powder, liquid, tabs or pods – and it does make a difference which one you choose. As mentioned above, heavy-duty powder detergent contains bleaching agents, which would end up bleaching your coloured clothes in the long run. Liquid detergents, on the other hand, are usually colour-safe.

When using pods and tabs, you need to find out whether they are suitable for the machine’s quick wash cycle. Otherwise the detergent may not dissolve completely and remain in the laundry as residue.

In this case, try running an extra rinse cycle as a short-term remedy – and in future consider switching to a liquid detergent for shorter cycles. Pods and tabs should normally be placed in the drum and not in the centre drawer, otherwise they may not dissolve completely. – dpa

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