Laundry Detergent Buying Guide

Our tests of dozens of laundry detergents show there are real differences, and not all get clothes clean. We bring on chocolate ice cream, tea, grass, blood, red wine, clay, and sebum (body oil), and test using cool water. Why cool? It’s one way to help you save money on your energy bills. Whether you’re brand loyal or buy what’s on sale, here’s the dirt on suds.

Match Your Detergent to Your Machine

Detergents are available as liquids, powders, and single-use packets or pods (see below for our take on these). Most are concentrated, which reduces the plastic needed to make the bottles and the fuel for the delivery trucks. But old habits die hard, so follow the usage directions and measure the concentrated detergent—no more free-form pouring. Here are the detergent types to choose from.

High-Efficiency (HE) Laundry Detergent

Washing machine manufacturers recommend HE detergents for front-loading washers and high-efficiency top-loaders, which use significantly less water than agitator top-loaders so they require low sudsing detergent. Most HE detergents are dual-use, and can also be used in agitator top-loaders.

Standard Top-Loader Laundry Detergent

Dual-use detergents are so common that it’s hard to find detergent meant only for agitator top-loaders. That's why you won't see any in our ratings.

Cold Water Laundry Detergent

Using less hot water saves energy and money. With cold water detergents, the cleansing enzymes are designed to work better in cold water. We test these detergents in 60°F water, instead of the 75°F water used in our cool water tests.

Green Laundry Detergent

Detergents we've tested that make green claims haven’t delivered the same cleaning power of the top-rated detergents. One possible factor is that green detergents may lack the enzymes and other chemicals that give many regular detergents their stain-fighting power.

Need to know: The names of these detergents may include “green,” “eco,” or “natural,” but there’s no federal standard and no required verification for these terms. If the label says “organic,” it’s meaningful if the product also has the “USDA Organic” seal, because third-party verification is required and it must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The other 5 percent that aren’t organic should pose no risks to human health and the environment.

The Trouble With Pods and Fabric Softener

Pods and Packets

Single-use laundry pods and packets are convenient to use, but between 2012 and 2015, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received reports of 38,021 people suffering exposure to the liquid detergent in the packets in some way: ingesting or inhaling it, getting it in their eyes, or absorbing it through their skin. Children under age 6 account for 91 percent of the reported incidents. Consumer Reports’ advice to consumers has been to keep laundry packets out of households where children under 6 years old may be present.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is aware of eight deaths related to ingesting liquid laundry detergent packets in the U.S. between 2012 and early 2017: two were young children and six were adults with dementia. As a result of this new data from the CPSC highlighting the potential risks of laundry detergent packets to adults with dementia, we are amending our advice and recommending that family members caring for anyone who is cognitively impaired not keep these packets in the home.

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