Telltale Signs You’re Using Too Much Detergent

Even when laundry is filthy, smelly, and stained, more detergent isn't better. If there are suds after the rinse cycle, your clothes aren't getting clean.

detergents-ts/ShutterstockWe live in an age where more is often better—more food, more drink, more clothes, more money, and so on. Even with the simplest things in life, like washing your clothes, it’s natural to conclude that more is better. But more detergent doesn’t necessarily mean cleaner clothes.

While it seems logical that more suds in the machine would mean squeaky clean garb, it’s actually quite the opposite, according to various laundry experts, including Mary Gagliardi, a.k.a. Dr. Laundry, a scientist at The Clorox Company.

Apparently, using too much detergent can actually create more problems, including stain or residue on clothes, odor left behind in the washing machine from trapped excess residue, loads not having a chance to drain properly, resulting in wetter clothes, increased wear and tear on the washing machine’s pump and motor from the suds acting like a brake, and greater energy required to wash clothes since the machine automatically adds extra rinses and pauses to break down excess suds.

With so many problems potentially caused by too much detergent, how can you make sure to not overdo it? According to Gagliardi, you must first understand the three factors that determine cleaning performance in the laundry: thermal energy (water temperature), mechanical energy (agitation), and chemical energy (provided by the detergent and the laundry additives).

“When optimized, these factors work together to provide great cleaning, Gagliardi says. “You optimize temperature by choosing the hottest water you can because the hotter the water, the better the cleaning. You optimize mechanical energy by increasing the agitation (heavy duty versus delicate cycles), by increasing the agitation time, and by adding an extra rinse. You optimize chemical energy by making sure you use the right amount of a good detergent, and add the appropriate laundry additive for the load being washed.”

Understanding what exactly detergent ingredients do in the wash is also enlightening. Gagliardi says a good detergent starts with builders, surfactants, and anti-redeposition agents, which all work together to soften the water so the cleaning agents can remove the soil and then suspend it in the wash water, while also keeping the soil from depositing back onto the clothes. Detergent should also have enzymes that break up protein stains to make it easier for cleaning agents to remove them. Fluorescent whitening agents are also important, as they deposit onto fabrics to capture light from the non-visible part of the spectrum that you can’t see and reflect it in the visible part of the spectrum, as are laundry additives (sodium hypochlorite and color-safe bleaches), which improve performance over what you’d get with detergent alone.

Then there’s the type of washing machine you’re using, which should figure into how much detergent you’re using. High-efficiency (HE) washers use less water, energy, and detergent than traditional washers. “If you have a HE washer, you need to use a HE detergent (and laundry additives that include instructions for use in HE washers),” says Gagliardi. “These products are specially formulated for low water wash conditions, and include surfactants that won’t cause too many suds in the washer.” Oversudsing cushions the load as it tumbles, which just reduces mechanical action and lowers cleaning performance. “Using a smaller amount of a standard non-HE detergent to try to limit foaming is actually not a good fix for this because it also reduces the necessary ingredients needed for cleaning, which may not be evident after one cycle but becomes more apparent over time,” she says.

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So how do you know how much detergent to add? The best advice is check the instructions on the detergent bottle or box, which typically tells you the minimum amount you need for an average size load with average soil washed in water with lower water hardness levels. Once you know your baseline amount, you can add more if you have a larger than average load, or if you have more heavily soiled laundry.

Is it possible that detergent companies are telling you to use too much detergent? Perhaps. If you follow the directions on the packaging and still find huge amounts of suds in the wash cycle, this is a good indicator that it might be too much detergent. “In this situation, re-check the package instructions and make sure the lowest level of detergent recommended (usually ‘line 1’ on a cap or scoop) is clearly marked so it’s easy to measure the correct amount,” says Gagliardi. “And please do measure—pouring detergent directly from the bottle into the washer without measuring is a great way to make sure you use the wrong amount—either too much or too little!”

Check out the 16 things you never knew you could put in the washing machine!

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