Does Cheap Laundry Detergent Work as Well as Expensive Brands?
by Reader Contributors
Sure you want to save money, but is cheap laundry detergent a solution? Our frugal readers weigh in on how cheaper detergents compare to name brands.
We often get asked about the effectiveness of cheaper laundry detergents. Here are a few.
Dear Dollar Stretcher,
I am curious if anybody knows the difference (if there is one) between the cheap 5 gallon bucket of WindFresh laundry detergent you can buy at Sam’s Club that does 200 loads, and a box of very expensive Tide (or any other name brand).
I’ve used WindFresh forever, but recently I’ve been wondering if perhaps the claims Tide makes regarding keeping clothes looking newer, fresher, etc. are true?
Dear Dollar Stretcher,
Just wondering if you or your readers have seen anything about whether a cheap laundry detergent (read: not the national brand in the orange box) fades colors or wears out your clothes faster than the heavily advertised national brand. I use Arm & Hammer because it runs $3-4 less than the other. However, if it fades my kid’s clothes faster or otherwise creates more wear on them, it isn’t a bargain. Is it just an advertising gimmick?
Do Cheap Laundry Detergents Work as Well as Expensive Brands?
Here at The Dollar Stretcher, we do not know the effectiveness of cheaper laundry detergents as well as our frugal readers so we asked them to weigh in. Read on for their opinions on which laundry detergents offer the best value as well as some tips for saving on the cost of doing laundry,
I Went Back to Tide
I don’t work for Tide but I should own stock in the company for as much as I use. A very long time ago I used to buy whatever detergent was on sale or what I had coupons for. I had never used Tide before and one week that is what I ended up with.
After doing some loads of laundry, I noticed that Tide took out stains that the other leading detergents did not. Since that day, I have used nothing but Tide. I think it makes clothes ‘look newer’ longer. Keep an eye out for those Tide coupons. Of course, this is just one user’s opinion, mine. Give Tide a try for a month or so and see what you think.
I Like The Aldi Brand
I can do you one better than the Arm and Hammer brand. I have been using the ALDI brand, “Astra” liquid laundry detergent.
My husband is very picky about how his clothes look, and Astra is gentle on them and does not fade them. It gets them clean with only the capful that is recommended. That’s another thing I have found. You have to watch out for with bargain brands. Many times when they say to use a capful you often have to use more to get your clothes clean but not with Astra.
It’s Not the Detergent
Laundry detergent doesn’t clean the clothes. It breaks down the surface tension in the water so that it can dissolve water soluble dirt more easily. The actual cleaning is done by the agitator and the clothes rubbing against each other. In fact, the more detergent you use the faster your clothes wear out and fade.
So regardless of what brand of laundry detergent you use, don’t follow the manufacturer’s recommended detergent amounts. Instead make sure you are loading your washer correctly (too many clothes hinders agitation, clothes don’t get as clean, too few clothes allow the clothes to stay away from each other so they don’t get as clean either), and experiment to see how little detergent you can use and still get the level of cleanness and fresh smell you want.
Also, hot water is not ever needed to wash clothes. Most clothes (except for heavily soiled ones) can be cleaned very well with cold water. Heavily soiled clothes can be cleaned with warm water.
If you use the above tips, not only will you save money on detergent, but your washer will last longer, clothes will last longer and your utility bills will be smaller.
Cold Water and Less Dryer is the Answer
I also use Arm and Hammer laundry detergent. I have noticed no big difference in the cleanliness of my clothes or the wear on them. Then again, I wash in cold or warm water most of the time and dry my clothes for a minimal time or hang them on the line, which I believe has more to do with wear and tear on the clothes than the detergent I use.
I also like to use the store brand fabric softener and bleach. They seem to work just as well as the name brands and are a fraction of the cost.
Cheap Detergent for Whites Only
I learned the hard way that some of those super cheap detergents do, in fact, ruin clothing. I washed several items of brightly-colored clothes in some ultra cheap detergent and in fewer than 3 washings I realized with horror that they had faded to the point of looking almost too old to wear.
My solution now is to use the super-cheap detergents for whites (especially diapers!) where fading is not an issue. For my bright colors, I buy Gain with Bleach (very highly rated by Consumer Reports, and much cheaper than Tide) which does not fade the clothes.
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Money-Saving Laundry Tips
Here are my money saving tips for doing laundry:
- Always use cold water, except for towels and underwear.
- Use the cheapest detergent you can buy. I stick with liquid Purex or any liquid store brand that’s on sale. I never buy the kind with bleach because it does fade and wear clothes faster.
- Invest in a pretreat product. I swear by Shout, which I buy on sale by the 1/2 gallon. Spray the spot, wad up the clothing and toss in the hamper. Check after washing and before drying to make sure the spot is gone.
- Use the store brand of liquid fabric softener. I can buy a gallon for 99¢ on sale. It is not heavily perfumed like some national brands and works just great to reduce wrinkles and static.
- For everything except linens, underwear and jeans, I only dry them in the dryer for 10 minutes, then hang items on hangers on a clothesline. Less dryer time means less electricity, less wear and tear on clothes and less shrinking.
Use Tide, But Less of It
I have found that Tide does clean stained clothes better. In order to compensate for the price difference, I have begun using only 1/4 to 1/2 of the recommended amount of detergent (thanks to some suggestions I read here!). In my opinion, even this diluted amount cleans better than the WindFresh brand at Sam’s.
Avoid White Fabrics and Use Cheap Detergent
I suspect you have fallen prey to the Whiter Than White, Cleaner Than Clean advertising campaign of the major detergent manufacturers. You asked if Tide gets clothes cleaner? Well, try it and see! Perhaps it will get your clothes a tad whiter. Do you care? If it costs you *twice* as much? I no longer buy white sheets, towels, socks, etc., and now I don’t care about dingy whites or yellowing towels!
Just think, you bought those white socks for about $3 per pair? And you will ultimately pay about $18 in brand-name detergent keeping them clean. Does this make sense? In our house, we buy non-white socks. Socks only last three to six months. Definitely not worth spending excess bucks on. When those socks go gray, turn them into puppets, car waxers, dust mitts, whatever! You already got your money’s worth out of them, and are just wasting money now trying to get them re-white!
The same goes for sheets, towels, etc. If you can’t get over the marketing mumbo-jumbo, keep a box of name brand detergent on hand for your ‘good’ stuff, and a jumbo box of cheapo detergent for your ‘other’ stuff.
Switched to WindFresh
Sorry Tide, but WindFresh is doing your job in my house from here on out. I admit I was skeptical, I have been a die hard Tide user since I realized that the rash my family kept getting was from the “cheaper” detergents I had been trying. But I purchased a bucket of WindFresh after using a trial sample – given to me at Sam’s. I am impressed with the value, and the only differences I can tell are that WindFresh smells fresher and cleaner than Tide, and it seems to get the stains out quicker and easier than Tide. My only complaint, my shelves don’t hold the WindFresh bucket, so I am recycling the empty Tide box!
I use the bargain detergent on dark clothes, where you won’t notice any graying, and reserve the name brand (maybe even with-bleach detergent) for lights and whites. I also have a formula in my head when I look for good prices. I buy when the cost for detergent is 10 cents or less per load.
Katie in Salt Lake City, Utah
Cost of Detergent Vs. Cost of Clothes
I have found that Tide does get out more stains and odors than the big bucket soap. However, I still don’t buy it very often, if at all. Tide costs double what I pay for the Costco brand. I figure if I am buying all of my clothes very inexpensively at yard sales or receiving hand-me-downs, it is not cost effective to spend so much more on the soap. It makes more sense for me to replace the items. This might change if I were spending more on my clothes or did not have a way to acquire more inexpensive clothing so easily.
Theresa in Tucson
Add Baking Soda
Try a 50/50 mix of (expensive) soap and baking soda. Makes it go further!
Related: Two Dozen Baking Soda Savings
Hard Water Affects Detergent
Aside from the addition of proprietary perfumes, powdered bleach, etc., I’ve found most national brands of detergents work pretty much the same. For some reason, though, store brands vary a lot in quality.
The other thing you have to watch for, especially in the American Southwest and Intermountain States, is hard water. It doesn’t wash as effectively, and the dissolved minerals in the water end up in your clothes, leaving them drab and dingy. You can fix this problem inexpensively by adding about a cup of regular white vinegar to your laundry load. It helps neutralize the water, and after a few loads you will definitely see the difference.
Save the Money!
Cheap is just as good! I have been doing laundry with cheap detergent for about two years and I find little if any difference in performance. I also only use about half the recommended amount of soap for all but the most soiled garments and find this works just as well! Undergarments as well as towels don’t get all that dirty.
Also if you use fabric softener sheets, use only half a sheet. It does the same job. If you have jeans, etc. with stained knees or any thing that has oil-based stains, try pouring a little straight ammonia on the spot. Be careful not to inhale and ventilate the area. You will be amazed at what a great job it does.
Washing Clothes less Often
I normally use Tide with Bleach because I think it’s about the best available for my circumstances. I think your water and your machine have a lot to do with how clean your clothes get too. I have used less expensive brands also. I think Arm & Hammer is pretty good too. I haven’t noticed that it or any other cheaper brand I’ve purchased fade out the clothes any faster than the name brands.
What I’ve discovered from 23 years of doing laundry for my family is that sometimes you wear out things washing them, not wearing them. We usually wear “good clothes” a time or two, or three before we wash them, unless they were actually noticeably dirty.
I think the heat of your dryer fades out clothes just as bad or worse than washing them. Clothes I washed in cold water didn’t fade all summer when I dried them on the line, but started fading immediately when the weather got cold and I started using the dryer. Also, I like to dry clothes on the line whenever the weather is nice enough, but direct sunlight fades colors too, especially bright colored cottons.
Advertising Increases Price of Brand Names
My degree is in Textiles and Marketing, and I have a partial answer to your question. From Marketing 101: Almost 50% of your purchase price for a national brand goes towards advertising!
I buy generic brands or national brands with a sizable coupon for best values. From Textiles 101: clothes last longer if you dry outdoors and turn inside out to prevent fading. The dryer can be hard on your fabrics, especially if you repeatedly dry them past the point of dryness.
I also try to launder similar fabrics together and usually in cold water. Avoid washing terry towels with garments, as fuzz collects on the clothes, making them look dusty or less-than-clean.
Consumer Reports Favor Name Brands
Consumer Reports recently ran tests on the national and non-name-brand detergents, as well as fabric softeners and dryer sheets.
Their basic belief and mine, as well–after many years of experimentation, is that it is worth the extra money to buy the national (name-brand) detergents and fabric softeners.
While some may disagree, the tests proved conclusively that fading was significantly lessened by using (their No. 1 rated) Tide and Downey over other brands that were cheaper. I have found similar results.
While it is more expensive, by using coupons and waiting for sales, the prices I pay are comparable to the non-name-brand stuff that I used to buy. But the important thing is that it saves our clothes and makes hand-me-downs seem less like hand-me-downs and more like new apparel.
Another tip that others may have known but was new to me: I found that I’d been doing laundry “wrong” all these years. CR claims that if you allow the basin of the washer to fill up with water and detergent before putting clothes in, that it makes the detergent that much more effective. I’ve been doing it since reading that tip, and it might actually make a difference!!
Reviewed November 2021
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