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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…

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!

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.

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.

Guest

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

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.

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 !!!

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?

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.

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 🙂

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.