What Is HE Laundry Detergent—And Why You Might Need It

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If you’re not using HE detergent, you might be making a big mistake. Here's what laundry experts advise.

By now, you’ve probably heard of HE laundry detergent. It’s everywhere: featured in tear-jerking commercials, popping up in luxury detergent brands, and lining the cleaning aisle of your local grocery store. But aside from having a vague understanding that HE detergent is “good,” do you know what actually makes it different—and whether or not you should be using it in your washing machine?

For starters, let’s explain what it is. HE stands for high efficiency, and HE detergent embodies a very simple—and feel-good—concept. “HE laundry detergent is detergent that has been formulated to be used with less water, and to suds less overall,” explains Laura Johnson, a research and development analyst for LG Electronics. “Less suds doesn’t mean less clean, though. HE detergents are just as good, if not better, at getting your clothes clean [as regular detergents].” And you’ll definitely need them if you have an HE washer.

So, what else do you need to know about this topic, aside from the best detergents to use? We’re about to lay it all out for you, from when you should use this type of detergent to how much you should be using. If you could also use a refresher (pun intended) on how to do laundry, be sure to read our guide on how to keep your clothes in tip-top shape.

What is high-efficiency laundry detergent?

In a nutshell, an HE detergent works in tandem with an HE washing machine to clean clothes using less water. But the real magic of HE detergents is in the details, says Lindsey Boyd, cofounder of the eco-conscious, HE-only detergent and home cleaning brand The Laundress. “They’re low-sudsing and low-lathering, while still deep-cleaning—[the detergent] disperses quickly in the machine,” she explains, adding that they often work better with shrink-proof cool or cold water. “These detergents require less water to rinse away soap and grime compared to non-HE detergents.” In general, here’s how to choose the right temperature to wash your clothes.

What is the difference between HE detergent and regular?

“The biggest difference is the different surfactants (or cleaning agents) used,” says Mary Gagliardi, aka “Dr. Laundry,” the in-house scientist and cleaning expert at Clorox. “HE detergents must not cause foam, which is a complete change from regular detergents, which do produce foam that is visible on the top of the wash water during the cycle.” She adds that the other beneficial ingredients, like brighteners and stain agents, have also been adjusted to clean better in a low-water, HE system. Overall, she says, “it’s a more efficient use of energy and water” compared to the standard detergent-and-machine duo.

Why is it used?

Essentially, HE detergent is used to cut down on water waste in an effort to make doing laundry more sustainable and Earth-friendly. In fact, 16 percent of a home’s daily water usage comes from doing laundry, surpassed only by flushing the toilet, taking showers, and running the faucet. With HE detergent, you don’t need to use nearly as much of it to still get fresh-smelling, squeaky-clean-feeling clothes—meaning that your HE detergent gives you more bang for your buck and conserves fresh water in your community.

The best part? HE detergents smell great and are just as effective, if not more so than regular detergent, so the whole experience feels like a luxury, not a sacrifice. “The type of detergent you use matters more than you think when it comes to cleanliness and the look, feel, and preservation of your laundry,” notes Boyd. Here are some of the best-smelling detergents on the market.

When should it be used?

“HE laundry detergent is specifically formulated to function in a high-efficiency clothes washer,” explains Gagliardi. “If you have a high-efficiency clothes washer, you must use an HE detergent.”

Surprisingly, although it is specifically formulated to provide the best results in an HE washer, HE detergent can also be used—albeit carefully—in a regular washing machine in a pinch. “HE detergents won’t inhibit a standard washer from functioning properly,” says Gagliardi. “Just don’t expect any foam or suds.”

Can it be used in regular washers?

Yes, in small amounts, but since an HE detergent formulation is non-lathering, don’t expect to see bubbles. In general, though, Gagliardi says that a standard detergent is your best choice for a standard deep-fill washer.

Can you use regular detergent in an HE washer?

In a word: no. “Non-HE laundry detergents produce a more robust lather, creating more suds that cannot be properly rinsed away in an HE washing machine,” explains Boyd. “This leads to buildup on laundry, plus a surplus of bubbles in your washing machine—kind of like when you use dish soap in a dishwasher.” Johnson notes that all of the suds can also trigger the washer to use more water, which is problematic for a variety of reasons.

What’s more, Boyd says that using non-HE detergents in an HE machine can “contribute to mold and odor growth in your machine, as the product can linger inside the machine after loads.” Of course, that’s basically the opposite of what you’re going for when doing laundry. If you make that mistake, here’s how to clean your washing machine.

How much should I use?

“You’ll almost always need to use less HE detergent compared to a non-HE detergent,” says Boyd, “but always follow the instructions on your detergent bottle.” And yes, it’s a problem if you use too much detergent.

Can I use Clorox with HE detergent?

Yes, and Clorox is able to do much more than just whiten clothing when paired with HE detergent. “Clorox Disinfecting Bleach is not only safe to use along with your HE detergent—it also improves cleaning, stain removal, and whitening over what you’d see with detergent alone, especially in cold water,” says Gagliardi. “And it sanitizes the laundry, too.”

But you still have to follow the instructions carefully. You’ll also want to make sure to use the specific bleach dispenser on the HE washing machine, which will ensure the bleach is added to the mix at the appropriate time in the cycle so it is diluted before it contacts the clothes. One word of caution: Never overfill a bleach dispenser. Gagliardi warns that overfilling will throw off the machine’s sensors and release the bleach too early, potentially resulting in fabric damage.

Can I use stain-removing products or solutions with HE detergent?

For laundry that needs a color boost but isn’t bleach-safe, Gagliardi recommends Clorox2 for Colors. But she says it’s important to pair powdered HE detergent with powdered Clorox2, and HE liquid detergent with liquid Clorox2. “Don’t mix product forms in the detergent dispenser,” she cautions, unless you’re looking for a clumpy mess of sticky detergents. By the way, you’ll want to know when to use powder versus liquid detergent, too.

Sources: 

  • Laura Johnson, research and development analyst for LG Electronics
  • Lindsey Boyd, cofounder of the eco-conscious, HE-only detergent and home cleaning brand The Laundress
  • Mary Gagliardi, aka “Dr. Laundry,” the in-house scientist and cleaning expert at Clorox
  • Environmental Monitoring and Assessment: “Smart water consumption measurement system for houses using IoT and cloud computing”

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