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After we bought our new high-efficiency washing machine, I was warned by a few different people not to use too much detergent. High-efficiency washers use less water and require less detergent to do their job (hence, the efficiency.) I didn't give it too much thought, though. What's the worst that could happen?

Then one day I was caught in a torrential rainstorm. When I got home my jeans were drenched, and I noticed something curious: a row of white suds had formed above each knee. I realized that my walking action had agitated the denim and brought trapped, excess detergent to the surface. I had to wash my clothes with no detergent just to get rid of the embedded soap.

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal
confirms I'm not alone in my detergent overkill tendencies. Loads of Americans are overdosing their high-efficiency machines, either because the measuring lines in detergent caps are too hard to read or because they're simply used to traditional washers. And the consequences go beyond sudsy jeans. According to Consumer Reports, detergent build-up can lead to mold, odors, and bacteria in the machine, which is exactly what you don't want. Too much soap can clog filters and ports, causing the machine to break down eventually. Plus, some detergents cost 65 cents per load; using too much adds up.

According to Jeffrey Hollender, the co-founder of an environmentally sensitive household product maker called Seventh Generation -- I may have been onto something when I washed my jeans with water alone. Hollender told a Wall Street Journal reporter: "You don't even need soap to wash most loads," implying that agitation of washing machines will clean your clothes just fine.

To combat this detergent epidemic, reports the Wall Street Journal, some detergent manufacturers are designing caps with more defined measuring lines to ensure proper dosing. I'll admit that I'm not someone who measures detergent. I just pour it in. Why? I don't want to take the time to read the back of the detergent container and then figure out which of the lines on the inside of the cap apply to this load. Those lines inside the cap are hard to see in a dim laundry room. And I don't really trust manufacturers. I mean, look at how much toothpaste the commercials show people using on a toothbrush. I use about one-quarter that amount. With detergent, I guess I go the opposite route and use too much.

Plus, you almost have to be a scientist to figure it all out. Whirlpool says the correct dosage depends on the hardness of your water (softened water needs less) and how soiled the clothes are.

In my opinion, much of our detergent overdosing is simply a bad habit. It just feels right to pour in a certain amount. But bad habits can be turned into good habits. That would mean reading the label on the high-efficiency container, and using the cap -- however difficult it is to read -- to measure out the correct amount. Within time, the new amount will seem normal. Whirlpool offers this tip: If soap remains at the end of the cycle, you're probably using too much.

Ok, time to come clean: Do you use too much detergent in your laundry?

Recommended reading:
The Future of Laundry: No More Water
Top 10 Time-Saving, McGyver-Style Cleaning Tricks

  • beckydale

    I have a HE washer and it is harder than you think to get the correct amount of detergent. I do buy the special laundry detergent but I don't think the lines on the lid are correct because I can wash a large load and put in the amount of soap for a large load but there are suds left over at the end of the wash. After testing, I have figured out that I can only use a little less than a tablespoon on a large load in order for the washer to get all the soap rinsed out and that is with the washer settings on extra rinse and spin. So, I think this article was informative and I think the detergent makers should read it.

  • Kathy Price-Robinson

    Comment from the (female) author of the article: You folks are extremely entertaining! Lots of good tips and wisdom in these comments. Keep 'em coming!

  • dee

    I use a 6x concentrated all natural detergent in my wash. I never use hot water.It's a waste of energy. Hot water also sets stains. The dryer kills dust mites. Most germs are killed with just plain soap and water. I use cold for everything unless the label on the garment states otherwise. Yes, I use cold water for whites the bleach kills everything.

    Yes, germs are all around us. But, why expose ourselves to dangerous germs if we don't have to?

  • queenmothermh

    The sales person didn't tell you to buy "HE" detergent.

  • Davie

    The detergent manufacturers conspire to fool consumers to over use their product with their flimsy measuring caps.

  • Mistress Lenore

    Even on a plain old washer and dryer, you can use half the detergent recommended and tear dryer sheets in half to stretch your laundry dollars. I've been doing this for years, and my clothes turn out fine. The only reason I'd wash with hot water is to get certain stains out or sanitize the fabric if I plan to air dry.

  • Squiggles

    I've never had my washer run over, but I did have to tell my 13 year-old daughter not to overdo the detergent. I use CountrySave (no, I'm not one of those commercial spammers), which is not only one of the cheapest detergents in the supermarket shelf, but is highly concentrated -just look at how many loads a small box of it can wash compared to the other brands in bigger boxes. Since I have a frontloader I can get twice the loads out of one box. Their measuring scoops have a line halfway up; half a scoop will wash a full load of clothes, even in cold water. I would not advise washing clothes without any detergent, especially underwear, but you certainly can use very little on clothes that are not heavily soiled (with 4 kids this is SO not an option for
    One piece of advice: do not use bleach to whiten clothes. Bleach will weaken the fabric and is also highly toxic to the environment. Instead set your washer to the hottest setting ('sanitary' is the hottest in mine) and add half a cup of washing soda to the detergent. The washing soda boosts the detergent's washing power, and your clothes will come out just as white and bright as if you had washed them with bleach.
    And for your safety: Do NOT use fabric softener sheets in your dryer! The fabric softener on the sheets will coat the inside of your dryer with a film of fabric softener, including the filter, and it can cause FIRES! If you absolutely must use fabric softener, only use it in your washer which will rinse away any excess. For those who want to forgo fabric softener altogether (it too is toxic and carcinogenic), pour a little vinegar in the fabric softener compartment. It will not make your laundry smell like vinegar and leave your laundry nice and soft. Additionally you can put 2 tennis balls in your dryer which will pummel your clothes while the dryer runs. And for the ultimately "fresh" scent on clothes, hang them outside on a clothesline (ok, maybe not in February).

  • Rocket

    So, other than bedding, underwear and possibly VERY muddy clothing, and maybe even towels, you don't need much detergent. I use about 1/4 as much as is called for. I wash the dirtiest stuff in warmer water. Also, if you hang clothing on the line outside, a lot of odors and germs are released into fresh air. Detergents pollute rivers and streams, and even the oceans, plus other drinking water sources for wildlife. There is a level of consciousness we can all rise to. Thanks for this article.

  • TexasSteph

    I know I read somewhere that you should only put in enough detergent to be able to see a small amount of bubbles on top of the water--not suds coating the whole top. Of course, you have to be sure you've waited until the powder has dissolved or the liquid has dispersed.

    Squiggles, funny you said that about not hanging laundry out in February--I had just come inside from the umbrella clothesline in the back yard where I had dried towels & washcloths! Guess I need to add I'm in Houston! Love it--nothing like the smell of clothes from the line. I hang underwear, towels, sheets & blankets, weather permitting.

  • Sandra Carrillo

    The only people winning here are the soap manufacturers, of course they want you to use more than is needed, thats how they make their money. I have noticed big tears in some articles of bedding and clothes, and we were trying to figure out whether these tears came from the soap, or the machine themselves, anyone have any ideas?

  • DD

    Don't most front loaders have a maximum line where the detergent goes? Mine does, and it's 6 years old! I couldn't possibly put more detergent than the machine can handle. I don't understand why it's such a difficult thing for the writer. Many times I use less detergent than recommended, but I ALWAYS use detergent. I don't agree with the philosophy of washing with water alone. Not when I have two teenage boys.... sorry, but no!

  • Mama

    Once upon a time (about 20 years ago) I bought a box of Ultra Wisk detergent. It came with a hard plastic scoop, measuring out about 3-4 ounces of detergent. I still have this scoop. Whenever I buy a new box or bucket of detergent, I use my old Wisk scoop and measure out a scoopful and then pour it into the new detergent's scoop to see if the new one is the same size as my old stand-by. The old Wisk scoop is still smaller than what is packed in with detergent nowadays. I find that I can get my clothes clean using the smaller amount and in cold water. I am with the writer who washes bedding in hot water. My white clothes go in warm and everything else gets cold water. There hasn't been a case of diarrhea, cholera, eColi, measles or any other life-threatening disease from washing clothes in cold water! My dryer gets very hot, so any bacteria on the towels and wash cloths are dead. I have two boys who get their clothes pretty dirty. A spray of stain remover and a scoop of Oxy-Clean seems to kick it. I use generic detergent that comes in a big bucket, either from Sam's, Kroger, Piggly-Wiggly. I rarely use liquid detergent unless it is very cheap. I also am using a regular top-loader machine. Eventually I want to get a front-loader, but for now I go with what I've got.

  • Mama

    P.S. All three of my children do heir own laundry (ages 9, 12, and 18). The 9 and 18 year olds have been doing their own wash since they were 5. So far, no one's had sudsy pants!

  • colleen

    Shelley, yourcomment telling people not to get their 'underwear in a bunch' really defeats your comment that you don't need to use soap to wash your clothing. It just creates a foul picture.
    I have a whirlpool washer and they are pretty well known for having a terrible issue with foul smelling laundry due to mold and mildew in the washer. Using too much soap is only one of the reasons. They have mildew problems and my laundry s-t-i-n-k-s!! The towels smell like sulfur. I clicked on this article because I thought the lady was going to say her clothing got wet in the rain and that they stunk. Pretty awful huh? I have to run an empty washer with hot water to clear the mold and mildew. Talk abaout wasting energy. I cannot wait to get a new washer and it won't be a whirlpool.

  • able childers

    well, i have excema skin problem and had not been bothered with until we purchased this new machine and within a week+it returned . i am almost convienced that it is either using less water or the detergent or a combination of both !I will try the washing without soap next, the deterigent we are using is is suposely nonallergenic.

  • John U.K.

    I think we can become over zealous with some hygiene precautions, "wiping the laundry basket with Chlorine" seems to indicate obsessive behaviour.
    We have started using wash balls, no powder, just a ball containing small volcanic pebbles, which take the place of detergent altogether. Each ball does between 150 and 1,000 washes before it needs replacing, depending on the type. We consistantly get good results at temperatures down to C30, although I have to say I really didnt believe they would work, but now, Im convinced, and we never use powders or soap detergents.

  • Anna

    I bet the writer is not environmentally conscious enough to know about and use phosphate-free soap.

    Higher than normal phosphate levels can destroy the health of the lake, stream or other fresh water body, as they allow algae in the water to grow faster than would naturally occur, turning clear lakes and rivers green and cloudy. This extra algal growth is not only unappealing to look at, but can also make the water smell bad and make it unsuitable for swimming. It can also make drinking water more expensive to filter and can spoil the taste or smell of the drinking water. In the long run, the excess algal growth can have devastating impacts on the health and age of a fresh water lake or river, causing eutrophication to speed up, where lakes and other water bodies fill in with dead algae and other organic matter and eventually turn into dry land.

    Seventh Generation, Ecover Natural and Trader Joe's brand are phosphate free detergent brands that are eco-friendly.
    In addition to using these non-phosphate detergents, you could also follow other advice and tips to help the environment :)

  • kristin

    when my old washer quit working i went and bought a front loader and still to this day i over use laundrysoap but not like that picture i just have to rerinse and only soap is still on the clothes.

  • Mary

    Only a truly LAZY individual would make up excuses to keep from using the correct amount of any chemical in a machine. Sounds like the type who would put a case of oil in her trunk when her car's oil light comes on. Seriously, would you trust this author if she invited you to dinner?

  • Bonnie

    HOLY COW!!!!! I purchased an HE Whirlpool 2.5 years ago. We are a family of 8. Laundry room is right off the kitchen. 2 years ago it smelled like a dead body during the wash cycle....honestly, we were ALL gagging. Appliance repair person came in....diagnosed us w/ too much HE detergent. Per the repair guy... I had to spray Tilex Mold/Mildew through the tiny holes in the barrel. (I took a brake every 20 seconds to breathe in the next room) I then added in as much Chlorox bleach as possible and ran the cycle through the Sanitary cycle. It worked like a charm. I now run the Sanitary cycle once per week and pump in bleach. I have cut back on HE detergent to the directions but it still seems like too much.

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