What's the Difference Between High-Efficiency and Regular Detergent?

It's a small but impactful distinction.

Woman Selecting Detergent
Photo: 97 / Getty Images

When it comes to buying laundry detergent, there are lots of factors to consider. Do you want extra stain-fighting power or clean and gentle? Do you want triple-action or standard (and what is the difference, really)? Do you enjoy scented or unscented? Liquid, pods, or powder? Or should you ditch the store-bought stuff entirely and make your own? When browsing in the grocery store's laundry aisle, it can be challenging to discern the differences between all the bright-colored bottles. Most brands use the same few descriptors—"stain-fighting," "gentle," and "extra-strength"—which makes it extra-challenging to understand the distinctions between the various detergents.

We all have our preferences and favorites, and more often than not, we'll stick to what we know. But are you using the best detergent for you and your washing machine? While the world of laundry detergent may seem vast and intimidating, we're here to break down one of the more confusing distinctions: high efficiency vs. regular detergent.

If you've never heard of these categories, you're not alone. These words may not mean much at first glance, but it turns out that the difference is important to understand, as it can make a big difference in your washing machine's efficiency.

It all starts with two washing machine types: high-efficiency and regular washers.

What are High-Efficiency Washers?

High-efficiency (HE) washers come in front-load or top-load styles, designed to conserve water. Detergent company Tide says high-efficiency washers "use up to 80 percent less water than traditional, top-loading washers, deliver 65 percent energy savings, and wash more laundry in one go than traditional machines." If you're not sold by that fact alone, consider this: "High-efficiency washers are much larger than regular washers, holding up to 40 percent more clothes."

So, high-efficiency washers are good for the environment, wash more clothes per load, and save you on your electric bill—sounds like a win-win-win situation. But high-efficiency washers will only deliver these results if appropriately used, enter high-efficiency detergent.

What is High-Efficiency Detergent?

High-efficiency laundry detergent is designed specifically for high-efficiency washing machines. Since high-efficiency washers use significantly less water than regular washers, it's essential to ensure that your detergent packs a punch to get your clothes clean. High-efficiency detergents create fewer suds, so your HE washing machine can do its job without adding more water to clean your clothes. You can tell that a detergent is high-efficiency by a small HE sticker on the bottle. High-efficiency detergent does cost slightly more than regular detergent, but as it's more condensed in its cleaning power, you'll likely be able to use it for longer.

When To Use Regular Detergent in Regular Washers

The best practice would be to use HE detergent in HE washers and regular detergent in regular washers. But if you only have one or the other, here's when you can mix and when you should be wary.

Don't use regular detergent in a high-efficiency washer.Using regular detergent in your HE washing machine will produce more suds and lead the machine to a longer rinse cycle that uses more water, therefore canceling the benefits of the HE washer. It can also lead to a smelly washer from leftover suds residue.

When To Use High-Efficiency Detergent in HE or Regular Washers

There are minimal differences in the ingredients of high-efficiency versus regular detergents. The primary difference is the amount of suds created, but high-efficiency detergents will still get your clothes just as clean as traditional detergents. Like the popular myth that you need hot water to clean your clothes (cold water can come in handy in these cases), more suds do not necessarily equal cleaner. High-efficiency detergent can be used in regular washers and won't cause any problems. It will produce less suds, but your clothes will come out just as clean.

In conclusion, high-efficiency and regular washers can use high-efficiency detergent, but don't use regular detergent in HE washers.

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