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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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Caryna says:
2 June 2014

I use both, liquid for cool washes and powder for hot washes

Don says:
7 June 2014

Disappointing that you don’t include information about added ‘fragrances’ in reviews of laundry powders, gels etc.
I realise this is a matter of personal preference but it would be helpful if you could at least report the level of ‘fragrance’ – perhaps ‘none’, ‘little’, ‘moderate’ or ‘strong’.
I recently bought a pack Ariel with Actilift powder for the first time as a recommended ‘Best buy’. The ‘fragrance’ (smell) was so powerful and unpleasant even before I opened the box that I will be returning it and sending feedback to the manufacturer. I recognised the smell as one which lingers on clothes and can be smelt when passing people in the street.

Gwannypam says:
27 June 2014

My Miele washing machine developed an awful dank smell in the drum. Their engineer reprimanded me for not doing regular maintenance washes! These are essential if you use liquid detergents at low temperatures as I now realise! I have since done a regular maintenance wash and used the Miele Whites powder detergent for a hot cotton wash. The smell has diminished thankfully…but my electricity consumption has increased!

Alice says:
7 July 2014

I have just bought Persil small and mighty COLOUR but can I put this when I am doing a “white” wash.

I have searched and searched but cannot find the answer; PLEASE HELP if you can

Alice – For whites it is best to use a powder since these generally contain bleaching components, which will help keep your whites white. Anything designed to wash coloured fabrics will not contain bleach because it would fade the colour. Liquids and gels don’t contain bleach so are best avoided for washing whites.

Linda Lowerson says:
6 September 2014

Not too long ago I was v precious about using non bio and (v expensive!) liquid detergents, adding (expensive) stain removers if doing whites etc. Then I discovered Aldi’s Almat – Stainlift technology after watching Superscrimpers Harry Wallop doing a consumer test where it came out top of all brands tested. And a fraction of the price. I’ve used it ever since and just pegged out husband’s chefs whites, stained with curry, tomato etc. All stains gone and fresh smell. Unlike awful pong with highly perfumed detergents. (Washed at 60 degrees.) I only use gentle detergent if for v delicate fabrics or a baby’s clothes. I v rarely use fabric conditioner like some I know whose clothes often feel as if they’re coated with plastic after, and I find it leaves dispenser drawer mouldy. Machine stay much cleaner now.

Linda Lowerson says:
6 September 2014

PS. I don’t use too much detergent either. I cut down the amount years ago. Probably nowhere near as much as instructions suggest and laundry still comes out clean.

lucifer says:
6 September 2014

miele and persil are best detergents

gwendoline says:
14 October 2014

Recently I changed to Ariel colour pods tabs and I am not very happy with them.
They do not dissolve properly and every wash I have done with these there is a gooey substance stuck to my clothes and have had to use soap powder to wash them again would not ever use them again

manccubsam36 says:
30 October 2014

I use surf tropical lily & ylang ylang with essential oils and also a generous pour of yellow sunshiny days comfort fabric softner and people are always commenting how nice my clothes smell even when im outdoors 🙂

Sweetpea57 says:
6 January 2015

Also used Surf liquid detergent and Comfort sunshiny days and loved the smell on my clothes, but have had to revert to using powder as the drain hose in my washer was giving out such a stench lately! Tried the maintenance wash, it improved things a little, but eventually had to change the drain pipe, which was clogged up with mould&gunk!

Linda Smith says:
16 February 2015

I have been using liquid wash since it was first introduced, one for colours and a bio for whites. I never put it in the drawer, I just put it in a dosing ball above the washing before starting the machine. My clothes have always kept their colour, and generally dont crease much, as I use an anti crease programme which I prefer. I think the fabric conditioners have as much, if not more to blame on clogging machines.Its very concentrated and most people never dilute them before adding them to the drawer. It can cause your drawer to go black quicker, if you dont dilute, so what is it doing to the pipes and under the drum! I am going to give powders a try though, after reading the reviews.

Linda – The usual recommendation is to use a powder for whites because these generally contain a bleaching agent. It might be worth trying if your whites are a bit off-white. Biological detergents never contain bleaching agents. Bleaching agents can fade colours, so it might be best to stick to liquids and gels if there is a problem with fading.

Dave says:
4 May 2015

Linda – do you mean ‘Non-biological’ detergents never contain bleaching agents? Or liquids never contain bleaching agents? I have some Ariel bio here and it has bleaching agents in it listed in ingredients.

I would be interested to know which bleaching agents are included in Ariel Bio, Dave.

I have just realised that in my response to Linda I wrote that biological detergents never contain bleaching agents, which is nonsense. It’s liquid detergents that don’t contain bleaching agents, as far as I am aware.. Sorry about that. I cannot remove my post but have marked it down. 🙁

Ariel Bio powder contains sodium percarbonate, a bleaching agent.

Dee says:
3 March 2015

Firstly I will apologise if some of this comment has been covered, I’ve just found this site and didn’t read ALL the comments to the latest!
I have a hot & cold fill machine which belonged to a family member who didn’t need it so left it outside in the garden, I think while there it decided it had time to grow some mould! I am often doing battle with the mould. However, it seems to me that mould is encouraged in the drawer by fabric conditioner. Anybody else think this?
I have just started using Bold 2 in 1, the cleaning seems better than Arial in my machine, but I do wonder about the conditioner side of it, laundry doesn’t seem to come out of the dryer as smooth as when using an independent conditioner.
I use soda quite often in the powder compartment, and run the machine at highest temperature occasionally just with soda in it. Works for me.

Afternoon Dee – thanks for your comment and welcome to Which? Conversation. That’s strange you’re constantly battling with mould in your machine – You should definitely have a read through our guide about the best ways of removing damp:


Do you have any further details which we can share with our laundry and cleaning experts? 🙂

fati says:
8 March 2015

I have bought new siemens washing mechinebbut lost its manual can i use powder detergent instead of liquid one and how
model number is wm14q468GC

Alan Lambert says:
1 July 2015

I use different washing machines on a variety of French camp sites. Sometimes there is a very necessary warning that powders do not fully dissolve so use a liquid. Can Which produce a comparative list so I can find out, for instance, which liquid-in-a-bottle is the best match for Persil non bio powder so I can avoid skin irritants and obnoxious detergent smells.

Hi Alan,

Our tests of different types of laundry detergent are separate so it’s difficult to compare them exactly. It’s helpful to know what would be useful in future though so we’ll take this into account. Our latest liquid and gel laundry detergent tests included two non-bio products (one of which was Persil). If you’re a member you can see the full results at http://www.which.co.uk/home-and-garden/home-improvements/reviews-ns/laundry-detergent/full-laundry-detergent-ratings/.

Skin irritation can be caused by a number of different factors depending on the individual and is not something that we test.

J. Mac says:
8 July 2015

I am experiencing a sour smell on my dried washing when using Ariel liquitabs, anyone else found this.

Hi Richard and other peeps from Which

Why have you never reviewed Simply Pure Soft-tabs? They are hypoallergenic and great for people with eczema but they clean well – they are very man friendly! I just pop them into the drum so the drawer is always looking pretty clean. Detergents definitely irritate skin especially the likes of Ariel, Surf, Bold etc and powder is definitely better than liquid in my opinion. I say we go back to basics – nowadays the Unilever and P&G’s are trying to bring out a million variations of their detergents and are confusing the life out of us – Asda and Tesco detergent aisle looks a mess, it’s no wonder people are shopping at Aldi.

Di B says:
25 April 2016

This article has very little mention of the bleaching effect of bio washing powders. I started using special colour ones because they weren’t supposed to have any bleaching effect. Bio is bound to clean better if it bleaches, but how much does it reduce the colour of coloured clothes?

In general, liquid and gel washing laundry detergents don’t contain bleach whereas powders and tablets do, irrespective of whether they are bio or non bio.

Having bleach is important for white clothes and avoiding it is most important for darker colours.

Hi Wave I had that figured out by the smell but it’s nice to have it confirmed
Am I correct in thinking that the bleach helps with killing bugs of course if there are bugs there to kill
The bleach will also help stop the machine from becoming stinky ,, yes/no?
I use non bio liquid and have done for some time. .. . Wifey is bio and bleach but she has her work clothes. . ..

Low temperature washing and liquid or gel detergents with no bleach has led to a problem with smelly washing machines. The insides get covered with a slime full of bacteria and other microorganisms. You don’t need bleach in every wash to keep down the number of bugs, so what you and your wife are doing seems ideal. I would also do a maintenance wash at maximum temperature periodically to help remove grease etc. that would otherwise accumulate. The usual recommendation is to run the machine with detergent but no washing. That seems a waste of money to me.

For nurses’ uniforms that could be contaminated with nasty bugs or fabrics contaminated with faeces pre-treatment with disinfectant sold for reusable nappies would be a good idea.

Would a capful of dettol help in removing the nasty bugs? As I mostly wash my clothes in a low temperature wash, I do add dettol with the gel, which seems to keep my machine smelling good.

I use Persil Colour powder in my main detergent compartment and in my conditioner compartment I use concentrated Lenor Spring mostly and in my drum I use either Lenor or Comfort scent boosters alongside a little Ariel Febreeze Gel, it really delivers a fantastic clean wash ever time, even between high temperatures and low temperatures and the smell you get while its washing and after is out of this world!!! You must test this method and see for yourself’s, it really works a treat for me.

Forgot to mention as well, that is if anyone is interested. I also put with my Persil Colour Powder compartment about a spoonful of Vanish Oxy Action Powder.

i have been researching washing detergents both liquid and powders, my point is that powders containing bleach kills germs all the makers go on about getting rid of stains and getting washing clean BUT, they do not kill germs, or if you like the popular phrase “bacteria”, powders with bleach do, also Dettol makes laundry cleansers to kill germs, i also use white vinegar, and baking powder, powder in the drum vinegar in the final rinse, without fabric conditioner, they are both natural softeners, as for the lady saying they don’t get washed out, of course not, they are supposed to stay in partly to make thing soft and leave a nice smell! thayt is why one does not spin fast. and one must do a service wash very regularly baking powder and white vinegar again kills germs and removes lime scale. so that is my point, washing detergents do not kill germs. read all about them and that topic is always avoided, and germs bacteria are never mentioned, so we are all being mislead by all the manufacturers.

just as an add to, scientists are worried because low temperatures do not kill germs and they build up in the machine and stay on clothes, even though they “look clean” and they stay in the machine, unless one can wash at 60 degrees or above, but modern clothes will not like that, I do my sheets at 60, now, because I have to be very careful, I have three lung diseases, so am fanatical about cleanliness, also do you wash your hands after touching dirty washing? I do now i have been finding out a lot about it all, and your bags for life! wash those too full of germs. best to all, look it all up on the net you will be amazed. TTFN.

Regular maintenance washes at high temperature (90°C or 95°C) prevent the innards of a machine from building up a coating of bacteria and fungi (germs) that could create a bad smell and contaminate whatever is being washed. I used to do a weekly was at 60°C with powder or tablets but the 60C setting on modern machine often refers to cleaning performance rather than temperature, which is confusing.

As you say, washing powders or tablets generally contain bleaching components, but they may fade coloured fabrics. As far as I know, liquids and gels don’t contain bleach.

If someone is ill or incontinent then it’s a good idea to treat contaminated clothing and bedding with one of the products used to sanitise reusable nappies. As a microbiologist I remain unconvinced that we need to kill all bacteria and fungi since even the cleanest house will have millions of them on upholstery, carpets and surfaces. The washing action of a machine physically removes many of them, which is not well known, and using powders or tablets containing bleach will help. Regular washing is a good way of keeping the bug count down and I wash my bedding after a few days’ use.

Acetic acid will kill or inhibit the growth of some bacteria but only at a much higher concentration than you would be likely to use.

I agree with the advice but remain concerned that people are using a “60C” wash that is nowhere near that in actuality. What is annoying is Which?, following the German Test.de reported in August 2013 that two thirds of new washing machines came nowhere close to a 60C wash. The best in that respect was Beko whose machines all use the same wash profile and had a temperature above 55C several times longer than any other machine.

If you wish to consider machines I recommend you perhaps look at AllergyUK who apparently test far more rigorously than Which? . Which? test for optical whiteness at 40C. Test.de do more and also test for durability by running washing machine for 6 months non-stop. This equates for a life span of 9.5 years.

In the UK the average washing machine has a life-span of seven years. Is this because they do not face the German testing regime?

If you want the bee knees on reasonable hygiene standards then this site is probably the best.
they worry about washing machines too.

I remain to be convinced that those in a reasonable state of health are at risk from modern practice of low temperature washing provided that they do regular maintenance washes to prevent the insides of their machines becoming heavily contaminated with bugs. We did have a recent Convo about how often people wash their sheets and it seems that some of us are not very interested in cleanliness.