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Liquid, Powder, Or Pods? Laundry Detergent, Explained.

Graphic: Shep McAllister
SqualorJolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

Have you ever stopped to think about why you buy the kind of laundry detergent you buy? Probably not! Well, maybe at some point recently-ish, you switched from liquid detergent to detergent packs, but did you really think about why other than, “It seems easier?” It’s actually fine if you didn’t, but it’s also not a bad idea to understand the differences in laundry detergent formulas — and oh wow, are there ever some differences!

Here’s the basics of what to know before you buy liquid vs. powder vs. pod-style laundry detergent. (HINT: This can save you money!)

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In the US, especially, liquid laundry detergent is the most popular detergent formula. It has a lot of things going for it!

The two big advantages liquid laundry detergent has over its counterparts are a) it dissolves better in water, regardless of temperature and b) it can be used as a pre-treatment for stains. And look, I would LOVE it if you would all get into some specialty stain pre-treatment products, but I also live here in the real world, and I know most of you won’t do that. (To spite me, I’m sure of it.) It’s also, because of its ease of dissolution, the ideal detergent to use for hand-laundering.

So! For most people, liquid laundry detergent is going to be the right choice, for its versatility.

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Want a good liquid laundry detergent recommendation? Sure you do! Tide Ultra Stain Release is the ne plus ultra (get it?!?)(sorry) of detergents.

Sensitive skin? There’s a free and clear version.

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Powdered laundry detergent, however, has some advantages too, and chief among them is the fact that it’s shelf stable, i.e., it has a longer shelf life than liquid detergent. That means that you can buy it in bulk without worrying that it will lose its efficacy over time.

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The reason it’s more shelf stable than liquid detergent is that it doesn’t contain water, which will evaporate over time. The lack of water also means that there is far less packaging involved — powdered detergents come in either cardboard boxes or plastic bags, as opposed to heavier plastic bottles with caps and such — making it a more environmentally friendly choice. Plus, being able to buy in bulk will allow you to save some money.

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Detergent packs are the new kid on the laundry block and there is, wow, a lot to say about them. But we’re not really here for a dissertation on detergent packs, just for the basics. So here are the basics!

Detergent packs are great for people who travel to do their laundry, whether to a laundromat or a shared laundry room in an apartment building or dorm. I use them! Because I do my wash at a laundromat, I find it’s just wildly more convenient to be able to toss a pack in the bag of dirty laundry than it is to have to carry a separate bottle of detergent.

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The drawbacks to detergent packs, however, are very well worth considering. First of all, they are more expensive, per load, than liquid or powdered detergents. Also, they allow for much less dosing control, because they’re pre-portioned. And, they cannot be used for stain pre-treatment or hand-laundering, as they should never, ever, ever be punctured.

Ready for some light fearmongering? Too bad, you’re getting it anyway! You absolute MAY NOT puncture a detergent pod to use it for stain pre-treatment or handwashing and here’s why: YOU WILL GO FUCKING BLIND. Okay perhaps not immediately upon doing so and yeah, maybe I’m yelling and cursing at you for effect, but for serious, it’s legit dangerous to burst a detergent pack and I don’t want you to do it, ever. Look, I had to sit through an entire day of safety training on these lil assholes, and I’m not even going to GET INTO IT, so please just trust me on this one.

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And in closing, please don’t eat them. Jesus.

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About the author

Jolie Kerr

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert, advice columnist and the host of the podcast Ask a Clean Person