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Powder vs liquid detergent – which cleaned up in our tests?

Gel detergents

Once again, Which? tests have shown up the differences between liquid and gel detergents compared to powders. So is powder or liquid detergent the way to go if your main aim is to get your laundry clean?

We’ve just published our latest liquid and gel laundry detergent test results, which include big brands like Ariel, Bold, Fairy and Persil. Let’s just say that the gels and liquids didn’t perform too well against the best powders on test…

In fact, liquids from two major brands were so poor at stain removal that we’ve made them Don’t Buys. Bold’s 2in1 Bio Gel and Fairy’s Non Bio Gel are both so bad at getting rid of coloured stains such as blood, grass and mud, that we recommend you avoid them.

Are liquids and gels money down the drain?

Fear not, it’s not all bad news for liquids and gels. Although their stain removal power varies, as they don’t contain any bleach, these detergents are good at keeping colours bright. Better, in fact, than many of the powders we’ve tested.

So if you’re unlikely to get red wine, grease or blood stains on your clothes, and you like to keep colours from fading, you might not need the cleaning power of powder detergent.

Which detergent do you use?

Personally, I have both powder and gel detergents at home. My standard wash involves clothes I’ve exercised in, so these always need a good wash with powder. Ariel’s Biological powder with Actilift does the trick for me and there are no complaints from my partner.

When I run a delicate or hand-wash cycle in the washing machine, I’ll use the gel version of Actilift or Persil’s Small & Mighty bio liquid. And I can often find these detergents on special offer somewhere if I keep my eyes open.

Do you, like me, change between powder and liquid detergent for different types of laundry? Or do you stick with the same detergent whatever the condition of your clothes, bedding or towels?

What type of laundry detergent do you use?

Liquid or gel detergents (41%, 514 Votes)

Powder or tablet detergents (33%, 416 Votes)

Both powder and liquid detergents (27%, 337 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,274

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I prefer liquid detergents because powder sometimes sticks in the detergent drawer of my machine and can get into the machine during the rinsing cycles.

My clothes don’t get very dirty and I have not noticed much difference between brands of detergent, so I tend to buy the supermarket’s own brand or whatever is on offer. I suffer from various allergies but biological detergents do not cause me any problems.

I do not agree with this article, based on my experience. Power tablets in particular are incredibly effective and they shouldn’t be placed in the drawer but inside the machine with the little honey-comb sachet. This way the powder is released slowly and will mix with the water effectively.

Gels are a waste of time and money, gels’ main ingredient is perfume (!), so when the clothes come out one has the perception that clothes have been washed but in fact they are only scented and NOT clean.

Powder tablets on the other hand have no perfume or very little, and enzymes (in current generation biological tablets) are extremely efficient at eating dirt (they are living organisms) during the load.
Also, dirt generated by human sweat and other body oils and liquids (urine one of them) can only really be killed at 50degrees, so the marketing rubbish of ‘wash your clothes at 15 degrees’ is a humongous amount of lies, and should be addressed as misinformation.

I’m sorry dear Which? Magazine, but this time you haven’t done your job properly, you should have consulted with a microbiologist.

Consulted with a microbiologist??! Exactly what living organisms are you claiming to be in washing detergent??! I’m assuming you mean enzymes.

Anon – Which? have consulted a microbiologist – Prof Bill Grant of the University of Leicester, who is an expert in environmental microbiology. Low temperature washing, particularly using liquids and gels (which lack bleach) is not as effective at removing bacteria, but the bigger problem is that washing machines build up a hidden coating that is full of bugs. Sometimes this is obvious from the nasty smell or growth on the door seal. Which? has established that a 60C setting on most washing machines is well below 60°C.

Yeah, that makes sense. I’m more intruigued about the “living organisms” comment.


Anon – I have been following biological detergents since they were introduced in the late 60s. The fact that the enzymes are derived from living organisms (they are produced from bacteria) may be one reason why the general public sometimes thinks that they are living. Ariel adverts said that their powder ‘digests dirt and stains’, perhaps making an analogy with human digestion. A couple of years ago I found some adverts with a cartoon version of enzymes chomping away at stains. Unfortunately I can’t find them or remember whether they were broadcast in the UK.

I generally use gels. For most of my washing I use Fairy non-bio. I might be changing that sharpish. Bedding and towels get a bio gel (usually Ariel). Having had a skin reaction to bio detergent in the past I try to limit my exposure, so not everyday clothes.

I don’t really like powder as I’ve found in the past it tends to clog up washing machine drawers. But maybe I need to rethink my stance 😉

I’ve been using liquids for a long time but after reading articles on mould build-up in machines due to constant low-temperature washes with liquids I wondered if powders were better.
I recently bought some Surf powder on sale and have been using it but the washing comes out much stiffer and creases are more pronounced. Definitely a less pleasant result.
I’m wondering if I should just save the powder for my maintenance wash (to which I am inclined to add cloths that really need a hot wash rather than doing completely empty!)

George says:
5 February 2016

The reason your clothes are coming out stiff could be one of two things
1: your overloading the machine so the powder isn’t mixing properly
2: your actually experiencing normal results but gel actually makes things quite greasy.
Powder is definitely better for the workings of your machine and also for the hygiene of your clothes. Liquid is really all it says- liquid with perfume there is no cleaning power.
Hope this helps
-an engineer

Susanc – I agree that you should keep the powder for the regular maintenance wash. I have very rarely run my machine empty and would like to see evidence demonstrating the need to do so. It seems a waste to me.

You should put powder straight in the drum then you’ll have no problems. Gel is bad for your machine ad unhygienic

Whatever detergent is used, it is worth doing a hot wash (60C or greater) once a week. That helps prevent bacteria and mould growing on door seals and elsewhere in the machine, and can be done as part of a normal wash. (i.e. you don’t need to run the machine without a load.)

Manufacturers of laundry detergents often suggest using more than is needed, which is a waste of money, can make rinsing less effective, and creates more pollution. Half the recommended amount may be sufficient, particularly if the water is not hard.

A maintenance wash is certainly worth doing on a regular basis. In fact, manufacturers of washing machines will usually suggest a maintenance wash is done once a month.

If your washing machine doesn’t have a dedicated Maintenance Wash program (not many do), the standard set up is to:
Set your machine to it’s hottest cotton wash
Add the standard amount of detergent
Run the machine without any laundry

If I find the detergent draw is very blocked, I’d suggest taking it out and cleaning it by hand. Check out our video guide on how to do this.

I know the theory but I’m a microbiologist and I doubt that those who write instruction booklets have much knowledge about contamination by microorganisms. I don’t believe that a monthly maintenance wash is enough, and there is certainly no need to run the machine empty – that is just wasteful.

My washing machine will hopefully have its 31st birthday next month and a weekly maintenance wash has been enough to keep it clean.

The video on keeping the detergent drawer clean is useful. I use a little limescale remover on a cloth to remove scale around the holes supplying water. Doing this every few months prevents water trickling down the front of the machine due to limescale buildup.

laura thomson says:
19 June 2013

in answer to powder being put in the drawer of the washing machine, I don’t I just measure the amount of powder I have to put in my machine and just put it in the drum with the clothes and just put my washing machine to its normal wash no clogging of powder in my machine and it always dissolves this way so I have no powder residue on my laundry it works for me that’s for sure so my drawer on machine is always clean.


I don’t put powder in my detergent drawer and have not done for almost 20 years. (My machine is 31 years old.)

I have to clean the clean the holes above the detergent dispenser drawer once or twice a year to remove limescale otherwise water would trickle down the front of the machine, even if I don’t put anything in the drawer. It’s probably because I live in a very hard water area.

I stick to using Ariel in the blue and green cardboard packaging, for colours and whites respectively. I pour hot water into the soap drawer when the machine has filled, to ensure no powder gets encrusted.

The world of laundry detergents creates a lot of confusion and people buy stain removers which they would not need – if the correct detergent is dosed correctly. I read this page on the UK whitegoods website and it all makes sense now:


I have tried ‘liquitabs’ (liquid wrapped in single-dose envelopes) and will not use them again. It may be the particular washing machine, but I found two problems. Sometimes, the envelopes turned into a sticky slime in the water, got stuck to a piece of clothing and failed to come off in the rinse. Other times, the liquitabs got thrown into the gap the rubber and the glass of the door and because modern machines economize on water, there was not enough water to reach the liquitab so it stayed stuck there throughout the wash cycle. They only got dislodged during the rinse cycle, so the rinse cycle became soapy while the wash cycle was just watery.

Hi Clint
you mention the wrapper of the liquitabs you use doesn’t always dissolve fully. When this happens, are you washing at a low temperature?

Good point, Richard. I don’t remember if it was always at low temperature when this happened, but probably so. I mostly wash at 30 deg C (the economy cycle).

In the testing of liquitabs Which? has carried out in the past, we’ve not had this problem, though we do carry out our testing at 40 deg C.

Most liquitabs should still fully dissolve in a 30 deg C wash. Whilst testing washing machines, however, we have found not all washers will actually manage to heat up the water to the temperature you set them for. This is something we hope to look into in more detail later this year.

This isn’t going to help you in the meantime, but maybe it’s best to avoid liquitabs in low temperature washes and go for a liquid or powder.

Its a disappointment that Which didnt test anything from Ecover or the like. A missed opportunity for potential change away from the usual suspects. Poor show

Many thanks for the feedback regarding Ecover.

There are many factors we have to consider when selecting which products to include in our reviews. Detergents is a tricky area to cover as there are so many brands on the market as well as biological and non-biological versions of many.

I will be sure to note there’s an interest in us including brands such as Ecover and will feed it back to the rest of the team who work in this area.

Margaret says:
11 January 2013

I was advised to dry the drawer and inside the drum after every wash to prevent mould. As my washer is fully integrated this seems to make sense as the washer was never getting the chance to dry out naturally once the door was closed.

It won’t do any harm to dry the drawer and the drum, but that will not get rid of most of the water left inside. If you were to dismantle your machine or turn it upside-down you would see what I mean.

If you want to keep your machine clean then do a hot wash once a week. I suggest that you ignore the advice to run the machine empty unless you want to waste electricity and detergent.

It’s best to keep the door ajar, but take precautions if there are children/pets around or someone could injure themselves on it.

I usually use Persil powder because im happy with its cleaning ability – contains bleach so it kills bacteria that can lurk on clothes and in the machine, washes particularly well on whites, smells nice and doesn’t make me itch. – I have very sensitive skin, this is more influenced by fabric softner then whatever detergent. Liquid im told by engineers, is bad as bacteria builds up in the machine, and whilst using low temperatures, makes the drum smell nasty and mouldy. What has enforced my belief that using powders containing bleach is important, is that when i’ve used liquid, my worn clothes at the end of the day smell not nice in certain areas. This i believe is the bacteria build up. No problem what so ever when moving back to Persil Bio or non bio powder. I have never had problems with powder sticking in draw. I might of had a tiny lump, but what’s the problem with that?

The problem with powder remaining in the detergent drawer is that some of it can enter with the rinsing water. Detergent remaining on the fabric because of this or poor rinsing can cause skin irritation for some people. Not everyone is affected.

Oh I see your point, but do not all machines fill in the wash side of the draw and then the other side of draw for rinse? (The side that can also be used for prewash) I seem to remember our bosch machine doing this.

On my antique machine, one side is for powder used in the pre-wash and the other side is for powder used in the main wash. During the rinsing cycles, water enters via the ‘main wash’ part of the drawer.

If you pull out the drawer when the machine is running you should be able to see where the water is entering.

Beware that you might get a wet floor – as I did confirming how my machine works this evening. 🙁

Keep your old machine! At least it will use a proper amount of water unlike the newer ones!!

Absolutely. Adequate rinsing is something we have discussed at length in other Conversations. My machine is so old that it’s hot & cold fill too, making it cheaper to run.

Mary says:
17 January 2013

Is there any thing wrong with using hotfill instead of cold as it saves heating the water up and subsequent extra cost?

I think it will depend upon two things – whether your water pressure is adequate, and whether the temperature of your hot water is suitable. Our machines only have one water inlet, so you can’t mix hot and cold. I suspect cold fill is the normal requirement to operate the machine correctly?

Hi Mary

There are very few washing machines on the market which have a hot fill option. None of the familiar brands have any models that do. The only one we have on http://www.which.co.uk at the moment is the ISE W288eco.

Hot-fill washing machines pretty much disappeared in the UK. Water that was once warmed by your boiler for a hot-fill model is now heated by the element in your cold-fill machine. This sounds inefficient, but modern washing machines use so little water that there is a chance that the machine will have filled before your boiler gets going fully – unless your heating system makes use of a hot water cylinder.

aguafiestas says:
18 January 2013

I use non-bio powder as some family members are allergic to the biological ones. I am also very old fashioned in that I use high temps. for towels, bedding and pants. Still believe in hygiene and killing off the bugs.

Hi aguafiestas

Many thanks for your comment and the fact you use high temperature settings. this is interesting to hear as so many garments we buy not state to use 40 degree or lower wash settings.

Have you see to Conversation on bio vs non-bio? I know my colleague would welcome your comments https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/bio-non-bio-best-laundry-detergents-washing-clothes-allergies/

Wendy Tobin says:
19 January 2013

I cannot say that Powder is better than liquid as with the low tempresure washes that we all try and do we find that the power can block the drains and leave a residue of powder on dark clothes.. Living in an apartment this is a rule of the community after so many blockages due to soap powder.

Eileen says:
19 January 2013

I am very surprised at the amount of comments that state they have skin reactions to detergent. Should the manufacturers not be addressing this issue as a matter of urgency. I have never had any problems with sensitivity until the last few years. What on earth are they putting in it?!!!. I use both powder and liquid depending on the type of wash (powder seems to fade colours quicker) but only the non-bio due to an allergy.

I suggest you read the comments on this and other Conversations, Eileen. There are many issues and the problem is that different people are affected in different ways, so there is no solution that will help everyone. Here are some suggestions:

– Try using less detergent than recommended.
– Experiment with different detergents.
– Don’t use fabric conditioners.
– Try one or more extra rinses, especially if rinsing seems poor.
– Keep your machine clean by doing a maintenance wash periodically.

Powder usually contains bleach, which accelerates fading.

Hello Eileen

Reactions to detergents is a very big subject for detergent manufacturers and the points raised by wavechange are ones worth noting. As we don’t review fabric conditioners, I can’t say either way on using them or not but I’d suggest it one of the things you experiment not using if they are part of your normal laundry cleaning cycle.

Have you see to Conversation on bio vs non-bio? It discusses the differences between the two and who we have both. I know my colleague would welcome your comments https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/bio-non-bio-best-laundry-detergents-washing-clothes-allergies/


The reason I mentioned fabric conditioner is that it goes into the final rinse, so that the chemicals present will remain on the fabric.

Patricia Connell says:
22 January 2013

I have used Aldi”s liquid biological for for all my washing for at least 5 years and am very happy with the results.
Occasionally I use Ecover washing liquid for dark clothes and I am happy with this also. I find that powder can be a skin irritant

i always use Aldi s powder but not sure how much to use as ive just got a new washer dryer and do you put it in dispenser or drum

I use aldis washing powder but not sure how much to use as ive just bought a new washer dryer and do you put powder in dispenser or drum would like your opinion Thanks

Barbara Clark says:
26 February 2013

I have used liquids, gel & powder but have trouble removing the grease from emollients from bedding & tshirts. My husband has bad allergy related eczema and as a results uses emollients (moisturising creams) several times a day. I use Surcare most of the time which is recommended for sensitive skin, but whichever heat/programme of wash I use it never seems to fully remove the greasy feeling. I’ve use hot washes with Ariel gel followed by a second wash of Surcare to remove the biological detergent but nothing seems to make the bedding feel really clean. A waste of water too I realise. I have even contacted the manufacturers of the emollients but they suggested the hot biological wash followed by the nonbiological which I already do. I would also be interested in any tests being carried out on Surcare, Ecover & other ‘non standard’ detergents. Any advice?

I suggest that you contact manufacturers for advice, Barbara. There are some technical issues regarding biological detergents.

Biological detergents can contain various enzyme, including protease, lipase, amylase and cellulase. The only one of these that could help remove grease is lipase. Only the manufacturer will know whether their products contain lipase and if they are likely to be effective at removing greases (possibly lanolin, soft paraffin and liquid paraffin) from clothing. It would be worth mentioning the name of your emollient cream and what it contains.

You could also ask about the best temperature to use. Enzymes will be destroyed if the temperature is too high. The best temperature to use will depend very much on the enzyme.

If you are able to find any useful information it would be great if you could share it. I’m only interested in the science but there must be many with eczema and other skin conditions who have the same problem as you.

Zumbawomba says:
20 June 2014

Hi there
I too suffer with bad Eczema, try this. Use your usual Surcare on a hot wash for Bedding, with a couple of teaspoons of washing soda. This does help remove some of the emollient; however nothing seems to get stuff really clean anymore, does it! I’m looking into using liquid Paraffin, as used this when lived abroad, and it didn’t irritate.

Ann Hall says:
2 April 2013

Well, that was an informative stream of comments back in Jan and Feb. I looked it up to see if anyone has the same complaints as me:

1. Not enough water in modern machines. I always pour several more litres in via the drawer for washing and have a second rinse. Perhaps this would help with skin problems – it certainly improves the quality of the wash. More like the old days before the washing manufacturers wanted the A rating for water economy.

2. Does anyone know where the powder/gel for whites has gone? They are trying to sell us yet another product if we want the whites white. What a con.

3. Do we really need stain removers as an everyday product? Isn’t this what biological detergents are supposed to do?

4. Buy a second hand spin dryer to remove excess water and remaining detergent in the washing (also might help with skin itching). Then dry in the garden, weather allowing.

5. Always hot iron tea towels if you warm wash. You need heat to kill bacteria.

Denis says:
22 April 2013

I want to try Fairy Non Bio Powder.
I live in a Hard water area and a weekly wash for one person.

How do I use this Powder. I am totally confused by the Diagramattic instructions on the Pack.

Who writes these things??

Manufacturers often suggest using more detergent than is necessary, which is a waste of money and may contribute to the skin irritation that some people suffer from. It’s best to experiment and find out the minimum amount of powder needed. There is likely to be a Freephone number on the pack, making it easy to report problems. Instructions need to be clear.

Tinky says:
31 July 2013

Hi! Has anyone else had problems with Bold’s 2 in 1 Peony liquitabs? Initially it seemed a mystery as to why my wash, towels mainly were emerging from the washer with large bleached patches. I was blaming my girls for hair bleach etc and yet after home experiments, lots of chopping and changing and at the expense of many and I mean many towels – it’s perfectly clear that these capsules are bleaching the colour from my wash. Unsightly, upsetting and unacceptable! There! Gripe over! My advice? Bin them!

In his introduction, Richard says that liquid and gel detergents do not contain bleach. The manufacturer’s material safety data sheet does not mention bleach, whereas other products (e.g. Daz powder) made by the same manufacturer do: http://www.scienceinthebox.com.es/en_UK/pdf/uk_en/UK-IRL_110810_BOLD_RosePeonyLqTab.pdf

I have no connection with any detergent manufacturer and I cannot suggest an explanation for the bleached patches on your towels.

David Wheeler says:
15 February 2014

I emailed Sainsbury’s as their newish packaging on own-brand liquids gives measurements e.g. 35ml, 60ml – but nowhere I could find did it say how much a cap actually held.

I used to do a lot of pre-washing for my elderly mum’s laundry when she was in hospital etc; The Miele washer-dryer I have has an optional accessory for using liquid in the pre-wash and main-wash compartments. It’s an insert to the main drawer and appears to hold back most of the detergent in the insert, and then uses this when the machine fills after the pre-wash cycle. It seems to work OK.

Most of the time I used the machine on delay start as I’m on Economy 7 tariff and it’s 3x cheaper to run the machine during the night. I’ve always used powder on delay start otherwise the liquid would be dripping down.