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Liquid detergents don’t scrub up in our tests

Liquid capsule and powder laundry detergent

We’ve put laundry detergents through another spin in our latest lab tests. We found that liquids and gels can’t keep up with the all-round cleaning power of powder. So will you swap your liquid detergent for powder?

We’ve got a new, tougher Best Buy laundry detergent benchmark. To put this to the test we took all of the most popular liquids, gels and powders and threw them in our lab’s washing machines to see how they scrubbed up. Not every detergent came out smelling of roses.

None of the laundry liquids or gels could meet our new benchmark – this means that Ariel’s gel has been stripped of its Best Buy status.

Now, we wouldn’t want to blow this out of proportion, as its score (along with Aldi’s Almat liquid’s) isn’t much lower than the best powders. But our experts found that liquids just aren’t as good at cleaning coloured stains and they certainly won’t keep your whites as white.

Powder or liquid detergent?

I’ve always been a powder user (no, not that kind of ‘powder user’) but my mum’s been dabbling in the use of liquid capsules. Do I notice a difference in the cleanness of my clothes when I go back to visit? No – but then I don’t tend to get my garments covered in grass and blood stains. I’m just not that kind of guy.

And that’s the crux – since liquids and gels don’t contain bleach, they aren’t that great at banishing coloured stains, like grass, blood, red wine and fruit juice. They also struggled in our whiteness test, which measures how bright whites are after six washes.

Liquids aren’t a complete wash-out

The top liquids don’t have any trouble cleaning up food stains, grease or make-up. So your best shirt should be alright after a saucy date in Pizza Hut (as long as you stay off the red wine). They also won’t fade the colours in your football kit or evening dress.

Still, it looks like powder detergents are the way to go if you want to keep your tightie whities skid-mark free.

Do you use liquid or powder detergent to clean your threads? Will our latest test results make you pour the liquid down the drain? Oh, and you can see how your usual detergent shapes up in our laundry detergent reviews.

Comments
Guest
Hannykha says:
1 June 2011

my problem is my machine is old and rubbish so if I use powder it doesn’t dispense into the machine properly and leaves powder marks on my clothes…

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
Guest

Ah, the dreaded powder marks. My housemate’s clothes are always covered with them. I don’t seem to have the problem? I can see two possible reasons for this. I use liquid softener (which also makes it small nice) and I don’t pack all the clothes in as tight. I’ll see if we have any tips in the building on avoiding this.

Guest
CRAZY CAZ says:
5 June 2011

This is so true. For years I only used Powder detergent but the state of my dispenser tray (and the underneath of it) would be disgusting and I would spend more time cleaning the washing machine then if I did my clothes by hand!!
I use Bold Liquid tabs, they are great. You just put them in the machine before the clothes and thats it.They are a softener too.
My clothes come out lovely and clean. Sorry but I’m sticking to Bold Liquid Tabs guys

Guest
Liz Wood says:
12 June 2011

I use Persil tablets and crumble them into the dispenser drawer, which stops you getting white marks on your laundry.

Guest
TEECEY says:
14 August 2014

I think you will find it is the softener which makes the drawer and inside of your machine so disgusting. Stopped using softener about 3 years ago after reading online about damage to machine, not only dirty looking, but the damage the softeners do to the interior of the machines. Try white vinegar doesn’t leave a smell and I believe you can mix sodium bicarbonate with water, but since I stopped using softeners my machine doesn’t get all that dirty grungy look and feel.

Guest
evie says:
1 June 2011

I noticed a few weeks ago that white pillowcases were yellowing – I switched from powder to liquid last year, now switching back!

Profile photo of richard
Guest

It will make no difference to me I’ll keep to sachets – My bed cloths are either blue or maroon or multi-coloured – as are my shirts .- the dreaded white marks were a clincher to change to liquid sachets. The sachet is quick cheap and effective and very easy to put the correct amount (1 sachet) into the washing machine. My few white shirts are covered in paint and similar permanent stains. I never did notice a yellowing or greying of the old bed sheets – except my dog’s bed pillows..

Guest
Sophie Gilbert says:
2 June 2011

I gave up on powder a long time ago because of the powder marks. I never packed my machine too much and I did use fabric softener, but I still got the marks. I even tried to rinse twice, to no avail. Putting my empty machine through a cycle with soda cristals in it to get rid of any residue didn’t work either. Maybe I was unlucky with the powders I used? Now with liquid detergents I don’t have a problem.

Guest
joan ballard says:
3 June 2011

I use a little powder ( what ever is on offer) and add a little M&S whites liquid. My whites are
perfect !.. The secret is NEVER to mix with coloured washing.

Guest
J.Clark says:
3 June 2011

I normally use laundry balls, but sometimes need to use a (non-bio) liquid (Fairy since Ariel stopped doing it). I seem to be sensitive to so many things, have tried so many detergents that left me with a rash, particularly powders, that I don’t consider it worth even trying to change. My clothes smell and look acceptably clean, although probably not spotless and not sparkling. I do rub “soap” onto stains before washing. My personal priorities would be avoiding skin irritation and reducing damage to the environment rather than whiter whites.

Guest
Helen says:
3 June 2011

My machine is a low water consumption machine so I need to use the liquids as powders don’t disperse as there is not enough water. I like the liquid detergents and find that if you have a stain and put some directly onto it before putting in the machine you get very good results. I’ve never had any problems with liquid detergents but have had trouble with powders sticking to clothes and making holes so I will be staying with the liquids.

Guest
Jane says:
3 June 2011

I use liquids because they dissolve better at lower temperatures in modern machines, especially when washing dark clothes. I did use Ariel liquid for a time as Which had it as a best buy, but after a week or two, my machine smelt sour, even after doing several hot washes with white towels, so I’ve gone back to Persil. By the way, an easy way to remove any remaining spag bol stains on white clothes is to hang them outside for the day and let UV do the hard work. Keeping whites separate and using higher temperatures keeps them bright, as does drying outside if possible.

Guest
sam says:
4 June 2011

I have been using liquids for the past few years, but recently had a problem shifting some stains, and also had a damp smell in my machine, so two weeks ago started using powders again. These seem to be working much better for me.
I too have a low water use machine (Bosch) but I haven’t had a problem with powder residues, but we do have a water softener installed in our house, which I would recommend anyone with hard water getting.
I agree with Jane that the best stain remover, especially for whites, is the sun.

Profile photo of norm price
Guest

My wife and I share the washing machine !! (Yes, if I can drive a car and use a computer, a simple washing machine is not as they say ‘rocket science’. I prefer using a liquid detergent easy to use, and as previous posts have said, you don’t get white spots. My wife prefers to use tablets. I notice the posts above are in complete reversal to your ‘laboratory’ findings. I prefer to go by the findings of ordinary users. Perhaps your tests are too stringent. Lab tests are OK for technical products where they may show up a fault that developes over time, but are too subjective for personal products.

Profile photo of norm price
Guest

The word I used in place of where the stars are in my previouis post was ‘detergent’ Nothing stronger!!.

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
Guest

Sorry about that Norman – that’s certainly an odd one. Over-active profanity filter. I’ve made the change for you.

Guest
Karen says:
4 June 2011

Very interesting reading the above comments. I changed to liquids many years ago due to patches of white powder remaining on clothes and found it very difficult to rinse it off, as others have already said. As I am on a septic tank system, and I like to be as ecologically friendly as possible, I use the liquids that are safe for septic tanks. This means that the criteria used for these tests are irrelevant for me, and I guess quite a few others in these situations, and I have to use whatever is in our local shop (Co-op or a 3 hour drive to Tesco). Hard soap on stains and drying outside is definitely the answer to a lot of staining situations.

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Guest

I know this is not a social network site, but I can’t resist asking Karen, where in the United Kingdom is a three hour drive from Tesco? I want to live there !!!

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
Guest

Yes, being three hours from a Tesco is certainly rare.

Guest
David says:
20 July 2015

To quote Rodney from only fools and horses “I used to have a car like that”

Guest
Gary says:
5 June 2011

Very interesting article, as always from which (could have done without the authors adolescent “cool dude” comments though)

Guest
Chris Whitebread says:
6 June 2011

Interesting to read about the “dreaded white marks” caused by powders – I’ve not experienced this myself, either with my old Bosch or my new Siemens. Having said that, my clothes are rarely so dirty that they need the “industrial treatment” that powders can give. I tend to use bio powder on my bedlinen/towels to keep them nice and white (and to keep the machine clean) and liquid (Persil wool & silk) for everything else. Works a treat for me. But then I am single and don’t have kids or pets.

Guest
Richard says:
7 June 2011

Which? are right, powders containing bleaching agents and brighteners are the best way of preventing whites turning off white, although drying outside in the sunshine will also help. Powders unlike liquids will shift stains like tea, coffee, red wine and fruit juice stains (as can the sun’s rays).
The problem of white marks on dark clothes when using powders is the result of modern washing machines using far less water than their predecessors combined with the main ingredient of washing powders having changed from a phosphate base to the more environmentally friendly zeolite one. While zeolites are a naturally occurring mineral they are not as readily soluble.
The solution? I use powder for my whites, which does not show up any zeolite residue and leaves me with white, stain free clothes. While for dark colours I use a liquid which solves the problem of white powder residues and as for stains such as tea and coffee, these tend not to show up on dark colours anyway.
Powders containing bleaching agents also have the advantage in killing more bacteria which not only leaves your washing more hygienically clean but also can prevent the musty washing machine odour which comes from only using liquids or colour only powders.

Guest
Angela says:
7 June 2011

I am a bit perplexed by the previous writers comments. I have been using my washing machine with liquids for the last few years years & have never come across a musty washing machine odour.
I never close my washer door when not in use so this means the air gets to circulate inside the drum & stops any odour. It isn’t wide open just ajar.
But they are correct in saying about powders leaving white marks, it doesn’t matter if you put in a few clothes or a lot you can still get the same results. Years ago washing machines used to use very hot water just below boiling if required, now the temperatures are much lower so the powder doesn’t mix so easily where as liquids do instantly. I use non-bio’s & have no problems with keeping my whites as they should be, colours are fine as well accept blacks, they do fade eventually but I put that down to the amount they are washed.

Guest
Ian says:
11 June 2011

My concern/problem/whatever is that I have a lot of coloured clothing, not many whites – and I worry too much that the colours will fade faster than they need to.

So am I just buying into the hype of “buy our colour variety powder or liquid and your colours will stay as vibrant as ever”, or is it a case of it doesn’t really matter what you wash them in – they fade eventually anyway?

Which are saying that liquids don’t fade your colours…well in that case why do all the manufacturers have a colour liquid product?

Guest
Helen says:
11 June 2011

At my previous house I had a major blockage in the drains. A huge lump almost as hard as concrete was finally removed and all was well. My neighbour said she had had the same problem and her plumber had told her he had dealt with many similar and they were due to the use of detergent tablets. Have others had this problem? what do you think?

Guest
Graham says:
12 June 2011

Looking at the formulations, aside from the bleach in the ‘for whites’ powders, the main difference between all powders (both colour and ‘for whites’) vs liquids is that powders always contain zeolite, a water softener. Liquids never contain this ingredient. Why is this, and does it make a difference either to cleaning, clothes, or the washing machine?

Whilst powder does clean better in my experience, there does seem to be an issue with low-water washers, low-temp washing and shorter cycles. Powders don’t seem to get the chance to dissolve properly in these washes.

Also, I think Which? should look at low water-use machines and low-temp washing. It seems to lead to smelly machines, and to have compromised washing, hygine, speed, and fabric care (long cycles to clean anything). Very interesting would be tests comparing how much extra ££ it would cost an average household in water bills to have a machine using a bit more water vs the benefits of better cleaning, quicker washes, and reduced wear to clothes. Have manufacturers compromised these things too much in trying to lower water use?

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Guest

Thanks for all your comments about this. Detergent marks on clothes might be down to a poor rinse, which could be fixed by an adding an extra rinse cycle to your programme or improving the standard rinse by removing any blockages in the pump filter or waste pipe.

Another possibility is that the white marks aren’t detergent at all, but white deposits left by detergents containing compounds called zeolites. These help to soften the water in your machine and stop limescale from building up, but they’re not soluble in water so they deposit on your clothes.

Liquid detergents don’t usually contain zeolites, which is why you probably won’t notice any marks if you use them, but you can also find zeolite-free powder if your usual detergent is causing you problems.

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Guest

I was wondering if anyone had a recommendation for washing black clothes. In a house with two teenagers almost everything is black and seems to fade remarkably quickly. I have no problem with buying two detergents – one for whites and one for dark colours (not a lot of bright colour here lol.)

Thanks 🙂

Profile photo of wavechange
Guest

Try using washing liquids designed for coloured garments. They do not contain bleaching agents and optical brightners. As mentioned elsewhere, these are not a good choice for whites.

Guest
Lesley says:
1 December 2013

If you live in an area with a large Muslim population you will probably be able to find a washing liquid which is sold specifically for washing the black abaya (over cloak) which many of the ladies wear. I find this works well for keeping blacks black

Guest
anniwat says:
14 August 2014

There used to be a product called Dreft dark but I haven’t been able to find it for ages. I now get Waitroses’ liquid for dark clothes, I wear a lot of black T-shirts and they seem to hold their colour with this product.

Guest
TEECEY says:
14 August 2014

You can get special liquids for dark clothes, think it might be Ariel, not sure, but it is a good idea.

Guest
johnny b says:
7 August 2011

I have used liquidtabs for years. However I recently bought a new machine with an Eco 15 minute cycle, and found that because of the short cycle time, I was left with a “snail trail” on my clothes as the tab had not dissolved properly. So I now use liquid for the Eco cycle, liquidtabs for regular coloured washes, and for my whites I use liquidtabs with some soda crystals in the drawer- everything comes out spotless.

Guest
James says:
14 August 2011

Modern washing machines do not rinse well at all and have found it makes no difference whether i use powder, liquid or tablets i always have loads of residue left. The other problem is modern washers do not spin at the right speed to extract the soap. My 1200 spin Bosch does not spin clothes as dry as my old 9506 Hotpoint and that was only 800rpm but a much better washer!

These modern washers are not ‘eco friendly’ and it is all about marketing! They do not last as long, wear clothes out quicker, do not wash as well and use far less water which i think is disgusting and unhygienic. People often blame the detergent but more often than not its the poor performance of modern washers.

James

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Guest

James – About all you can do is to use less detergent than recommended and to give the clothes an extra rinse/spin or two.

Washing machines often do not spin at full speed on certain programmes. That makes them quieter and causes less creasing. Thorough rinsing is important, especially for anyone with allergies or skin conditions. Considering that flush a lot of water down the toilet, perhaps washing machine manufacturers are being a bit too economical with water.

My 29 year old Philips washing machine rinses clothes effectively and I can choose the spin speed, irrespective of which programme I use. I’m sure I will be disappointed when I have to replace it.

Guest
James says:
14 August 2011

Hi Wavechange, I already do that but thanks for the tip. I bought a spin dryer this weekend and that is 100% excellent at ridding clothes of residue. Can i ask do you use liquids or powders? I was told that liquids rinsed better but have found makes no difference.

On a different subject regarding detergents when i do an empty wash at 90C to clear machine out of residue i find the drum fills up with suds from previous detergent. This only happens when liquids have been used and never powders. So am wondering if the liquids contain something that coats the outer drum of the washing machine and if they contain animal fats? I know fabric conditioner is bad for machines but i wondered if liquids had animal by products in? James

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Guest

I now use liquids because sometimes some of the powder remained in the drawer and I was concerned that this might get onto the clothes during rinsing. Apart from that I have never had any problems with powders, tablets or liquids.

If you normally wash at 30 or 40 degrees it is a good idea to do a hot wash to keep the machine clean. The fact that you see suds demonstrates that detergent residues do remain, though if you live in a soft water area it would not take much residual detergent to produce suds.

I doubt if animal fats are used in making laundry products, but I don’t know. Any clothes that have been in contact with the skin will contain human fats and proteins. 🙂 Bio detergents contain enzymes which help break down and remove fats and proteins, even when washing is done at low temperatures. Sometimes it is possible to find what is in household products by searching online for the material safety data sheet. Type MSDS xxxx where xxxx is the name of the product. You might need a degree in chemistry to make sense of it.

I had not realised that spin driers are still available, but they are much more effective than the average washing machine.

Guest
sarah says:
14 August 2011

Just found this conversation thread regarding detergents and wondered if it was common for people to be allergic to optical brighteners? I know they just make clothes appear brighter but they don’t actually clean clothes better apparently. As an alternative to using brightening agents, could i just use liquid and add say an oxygen based bleach such as Ecover bleach or Vanish liquid? Would the hydrogen peroxide bleach be as good as say a box of Persil bio for example? Sarah

Profile photo of wavechange
Guest

I don’t know about allergy to optical brighteners but biological washing powders have been claimed to cause skin irritation and allergies, though some believe that this is not true. Similar claims have been made about detergent residues present due to inadequate rinsing, a common complaint made about modern washing machines that use less water than older machines.

Bio washing powders contain enzymes to break down proteins and fats/oils in dirty fabrics, so they are functioning differently from bleach.

Allergies differ a lot between different people, so it is best to experiment with the available products. In general you probably don’t need to use as much washing powder/liquid as the manufacturer recommends and extra rinsing will help to remove all types of residual chemicals.

Guest
sarah says:
15 August 2011

Thanks for the info. In your oppinion do oxygen liquid bleaches containing hyrdogen peroxide whiten whites as well as a powdered bleach? Can i ask what liquids do you rate for cleaning performance? The Persil Small and Mighty gets a mixed response and on one forum i read it supposedly rots clothes.

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Guest

Sorry but I’m a man and a bit lazy when it comes to reading instructions and shopping around. My practical solution to white shirts becoming pink when washed with dark colours was to stop buying anything white! (Other practical solutions include buying 10 pairs of identical socks to avoid having lots of odd socks, but that’s getting off topic.)

I have an interest because I am a scientist and rather fearful about allergies to washing products, since I have so many other allergies. So far I have had no problems, but I am careful to make sure that clothes and bedding are rinsed well.

I tend to buy supermarket brands of washing liquids nowadays, or brands if the same price or cheaper. Everything seems to work well, but bear in mind that I don’t have anything white.

I would be guided why Which? reports rather than anything you see on Internet discussion forums.

Guest
sarah says:
16 August 2011

I don’t know whether you have noticed but liquids contain no anti foam whereas tablets and powder does. I checked on the Unilever website. Perhaps as your a scientist you could explain if liquid detergents start off as powder form then just get dissolved in water? A bit like buying Phostrogen soluble plant food in granular form then dissolving it in water for example.

One thing i have noticed and that is the old formulas of the 80’s and 90’s were better at stain removal. I don’t recall having all these add on products which makes me wonder whether its better to stick to own brand.

Will an own brand detergent keep my machine limescale and scum free as good as the branded versions?

Guest
rosie says:
3 December 2011

“since liquids and gels don’t contain bleach, ”

they obviously contain something as I have just washed a brand new set of bedding and the whole lot came out with pink bleach type stains – money wasted and very unhappy

Guest
Sarah says:
21 December 2011

With a 3 year old, 2 year old, 11 month old, myself, husband and two dogs in our household, the washing machine is on ALL THE TIME!! We have stains galore, and I’ll try anything to help reduce the amount of times some things have to go through the wash again. I’ve always washed darks, whites, and colours seperately, but with having so many of us and now two girls and a boy, I now usually wash colours and whites together, although as I use gel and a scoop of stain remover, I’ve never had a problem with whites not stayign white – though I do notice a very slight difference now it’s winter and I’m using the tumble dryer instead of the (FREE) sun!!

I found white marks on our clothes and so switched from powder to gel. I began using Fairy non bio gel, due to babies’ sensitive skin. One day Tescos delivered a substitution and it was Ariel with Actilift bio gel. I thought I’d give it a go. The cleaning power of this Actilift stuff in comparison (and yes, I know it is biological as compared to fairy’s non-bio, but..) it is brilliant! I’ve stuck with it since. I’ve also changed from Vanish to Ariel for stain removers because I found Ariel got rid of nearly every stain, when Vanish barely touched some!

My washing machine does pong, why I’m not sure – I leave the drawer and door open all the time when not in use, and have to set the machine to wash the load so it’s finished a few minutes before I get up, so I can take it straight out to avoid having to re-wash! I’ve washed the machine out and bleached the silly thing until the bleach bubbles threatened to ‘spill out’ of the machine while on its cycle. I can see mould in the pipe going from the drawer to the drum – I’ve even used bleach with an old bottle brush down there!! That helped, as did the bleaching, but the smell is still there!! Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated 🙂

Come tax credits renewal time, however, I fear I will have to just go for what ever is on offer at the time, or begin using shops own brands and have to spend more time scrubbing and treating stains :-/ but I have picked up a couple of tips here – so if nothing else, thank you 🙂

Guest

2 ideas about the pong and black residue:
1 – do you ever use a 60degree wash? That kills many bacteria and is anyway recommended for towels and bedding at least from time to time.

2- there is a commercial washing machine cleaner which does a better job than I can with a brush etc with black residue from the fabric conditioner as well as removing the smell of stale water I occasionally get. You put it in on a 60degree wash cycle (again) and leave it to do the job. Worth its’ weight in gold I think.

Guest
Andy Hawksworth says:
28 January 2013

The powder marks on clothes tend, I think, to happen with machines that only have a cold fill, as the powder doesn’t dissolve as quickly. It might help putting a half kettle of warm water through the dispenser tray when the machine is filling. And to avoid the mucky trays you have to wash them every few cycles.
I only use a BUAV approved washing liquid/powder such as the Co-op own brand. No marks on clothes, it works well and smells good too!

Guest
TEECEY says:
6 May 2014

Had small problem with machine few years ago, read on several websites for solution. One surpririsng fact, not related to my query emerged. It has been found that liquids do far more damage to the internal workings of the machine than powders. Fabric softeners are the cause of all the dirt, grime and grease in the softener secretion of the drawer, the drawer generally and the interior of the drawer. Since then I have never used liquids and rarely use softener. These findings were sponsored by manufacturers I believe, but they don’t commit themselves about not using liquids.

Guest
Vickie says:
10 October 2014

I have a beko washing machine and recently all my coloureds that have been have come out smelling musty, Today is terrible and will need to rewash everything!!! This is only happening with this cycle at 40 degree wash. I use Fab gel and the white wash ect is fine just the colourerds …Can you give advice I’m doing a 90 degree wash just now to seeif this helps but other than this unsure as what to do next?….:-/

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Guest

Your hot wash should remove the coating of smelly bacteria and moulds from the inside of your machine, but you need to do this regularly to prevent the problem recurring. There is advice on the whitegoodshelp website: http://www.whitegoodshelp.co.uk/washing-machine-smells/

Guest
julie says:
15 January 2015

My white blouses say do not use bleaching agents. Does any one know what product I can use. Even the liquid tabs had a brightener in and the shirts are off white. I have bought new ones now but don’t know what to use.

Guest
William McIntosh says:
1 July 2015

is it me i wash my shirts in a well known liquid detergent and am finding the fabric has become over soft and limp what could the problem be?

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Guest

Various factors contribute to fabrics wearing out over time. General wear and tear while wearing, repeated washing, ironing and tumble drying can all weaken the bonds between fabric fibres so that clothes won’t remain quite as ‘crisp’ as when you first bought them. In the washing machine, clothes are subjected to heat and movement as well as detergent which can also contribute to fabric wear over time.

Clothing labels recommend the best way to clean the garment. If the shirts contain wool or another delicate fabric, avoiding biological laundry detergents might help. They contain enzymes to help break down proteins, fat and starch (often making them great for stain-removal), however some manufacturers state they’re not suitable for washing wool or other delicate fabrics. You can buy specific wool and delicate fabric detergent instead.

Guest
Penny Jaquet says:
6 April 2016

We have been using Bold all in one Gel capsules for about two years now, but just recently my clothes, sheets etc seem to be full of static electricity. As I can stop clocks with this, and have proved it, I thought this was something well past with the advent of fabric softeners. Even adding softener to the wash seems to make no difference. Has anyone else noticed this?

Guest
Valblanc says:
21 November 2016

When you wash fabrics very often, they get a naturally dull look. The fabrics will never get clean as new and as they washed at all times. In such cases, you can use optical whitening agent that helps clothes to get whiter or a brighter look like they are new after every wash.

Guest
havbg says:
24 November 2016

On 2 or 3 occasions I have found that the covering of the detergent pod has fused itself to clothing – very difficult or impossible to remove.