Laundry Detergent Buying Guide

Our tests of dozens of laundry detergents show that there are real differences and that some detergents can barely clean. Most major detergent brands are reformulated at least once a year, keeping CR's test engineers busy.

Three manufacturers clean up in the detergent aisle, tallying up almost three-quarters of the money consumers spend on getting laundry clean, according to IRI, a market research firm. Procter & Gamble leads the pack, and its lineup includes Cheer, Gain, and Tide. Henkel follows and is best known for Persil, and Church & Dwight sells Arm & Hammer and Xtra detergents.

Liquid detergents remain the most widely sold type, and while pods are convenient to use, eliminating the need to measure, even the best pods, also known as packs, can’t match the cleaning power of CR’s top-rated liquid detergents. Some pods are more expensive per load, too. Powders? Sales have dissolved, and few brands are on store shelves.  

For years, detergents have been made with concentrated formulas. This helps to reduce the amount of plastic or cardboard needed to make the containers. But old habits die hard, so follow the directions and measure the detergent—no more free-form pouring.

We tested over 50 detergents, liquids and pods, some of which are claimed to be gentle on sensitive skin or friendly to the environment, as you’ll see in our laundry detergent ratings

First, we launder fabric swatches that are saturated with blood, body oil, chocolate, coffee, dirt, grass, and salad dressing. We use stains that are exceedingly hard to remove so that we can detect real differences among detergents. Even the best detergents can’t remove every stain completely.

Today's water and energy efficient washers are designed to operate using cooler water than traditional top-loaders from the 1990s. As wash cycles got cooler, the chemistry of detergents had to change in order for them to clean effectively. That's why we test using cool water. We wash swatches in two identical washers with each detergent, then allow the swatches to air-dry. (A dryer is out of the question because the heat can alter the stains.)

Testers use a colorimeter, a device that measures color intensity, to see how much of the stain remains on each dry swatch, compared with stained swatches that have been laundered using only water.

The best detergents we’ve tested earn an Excellent rating in removing body oil and dirt—common stains—but they can also tackle tougher ones, such as grass and blood. Hard water, which has a high mineral content, can reduce the effectiveness of some detergents. We test for that, too, as you'll see in our ratings. 

The worst detergents? They're barely better than water when it comes to removing most stains.

Laundry Detergent Types

Here is what you will see in the detergent aisle. 

A high-efficiency (HE) laundry detergent.

HE Laundry Detergent

“HE” refers to “high efficiency,” and these detergents have pretty much replaced regular formulas. HE detergents are sold as liquids, powders, and pods, and can be used in any type of washer.

Washer manufacturers recommend these low-sudsing detergents for front-loading washers and high-efficiency top-loaders, the type without an agitator, because they use significantly less water than washers did a decade or so ago. Even new agitator top-loaders use less water than they once did, and many now come with instructions to use HE detergent.

Need to know: Regular detergent produces too many suds in a water-efficient washer and can cause the machine to repeat rinse cycles—a waste of water and energy.

Laundry detergents Ratings
An environmentally friendly laundry detergent.

Environmentally Friendly Laundry Detergent

Sales of detergents that come with green claims represent a small part of the market, and CR’s tests over the past decade have found that they do not deliver the same cleaning power of the top-rated detergents. One possible factor is that they may lack the enzymes and other chemicals that give many regular detergents their stain-fighting power. 

Need to know: The names of these detergents may include “green,” “eco,” or “natural,” but there’s no federal standard and no required verification for these terms. If the label says “organic,” it’s meaningful if the product also has the USDA Organic seal. That seal indicates that the product was made using methods set and approved by the Department of Agriculture, received third-party verification, and contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The remaining ingredients that aren’t organic—up to 5 percent—should pose no risks to human health or the environment.

Note that in our current ratings, just a handful of the detergents come with green claims.

Laundry detergents Ratings

The Trouble With Pods and Fabric Softeners

CR’s recommended list doesn’t include any of the detergent pods or packs in our ratings. Why? We don’t recommend them at this time because of the risk they pose to young children and adults who are cognitively impaired.  

These highly concentrated single-load detergent packets are convenient to use, but between 2013 and 2019, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received an estimated 79,445 calls related to liquid laundry packet detergent exposure in children younger than 6. Exposure can occur in several ways: ingesting or inhaling it, getting it in the eyes, and absorbing it through the skin. CR doesn’t recommend the use of these liquid detergent packets in homes where children younger than 6 may be present. 

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is aware of eight deaths related to ingesting liquid laundry detergent packets in the U.S. between 2012 and early 2017: Two were young children, and six were adults with dementia. As a result of this data from the CPSC highlighting the potential risks of laundry detergent packets to adults with dementia, we also recommend that family members caring for anyone who is cognitively impaired not keep these packets in the home. To learn more, read “Liquid Laundry Detergent Pods Pose Lethal Risk for Adults With Dementia.”

And as part of a social media trend, teens have put pods into their mouths, even biting into them, which is not safe. Check out “What Eating a Laundry Pod Can Do to You” for all the details.  

Did You Know?
As early as 2012, Consumer Reports called on manufacturers to make pods and packets safer. Since then, many responded by switching from clear to opaque plastic containers, and now packaging on all major brands has child-resistant latches or closures. 

We’re also part of the committee that set a voluntary standard for the industry, which includes adding a bitter-tasting substance to the outer film of the detergent packets, and ensuring that the packets are tougher to burst when squeezed by young kids.

Fabric Softeners

Softener is added to some detergents, with manufacturers claiming that these combination products clean and soften clothing in a single step. A caveat: We have long advised against the use of liquid fabric softener on children’s sleepwear and on any clothes that have been treated with fire retardant. Softeners have been shown to reduce flame resistance.

Laundry Lessons

Even the best detergent can’t make up for bad laundry practices. Here are four rules to live by when you do the wash. 

Prewash Stain Removers

Life can get messy, and stains are part of it. That’s why manufacturers market stain removers that promise a brighter future—a few sprays before washing, and your favorite shirt comes out of the washer looking fresh again. 

CR tested six top-selling prewash stain removers—spray-ons from OxiClean, Shout, and Spray ’n Wash—and found that OxiClean Max Force is the best. Check out “Best Laundry Stain Removers From CR’s Tests” for all the details. 

A red bottle of laundry stain remover.

Interpreting the Labels

Choosing a detergent should be easy, but labels can be confusing. Here’s what you’ll want to know.

Laundry Detergent Brands

Available in liquid, powder, and single-load packs. All detergent is sold in retail chains across the U.S. Henkel is the manufacturer.
Arm & Hammer detergent is available in liquid, powder, and single-load packs, and is sold at discount, food, and drugstore retailers nationally. Church & Dwight makes this brand of detergent.
Introduced to the American market in 1950, Cheer quickly became Procter & Gamble's second leading brand of laundry detergent, after Tide. Since then, Cheer has been repositioned as P&G's lower-priced brand, and is available through mass retailers nationwide.
Another Procter & Gamble brand, Gain is best known for its fragrant laundry detergent and complementary clothing-care and cleaning products. Gain is available in liquid, powder, and single-load packs.
One of Europe’s leading brands of laundry detergent, Persil was introduced to the American market in 2015. Manufactured by Henkel, which also makes the Purex brand of laundry detergent, Persil is available in liquid and single-load caps, and is sold in a wide range of stores.
Manufactured by Dial, a subsidiary of Henkel (which also makes Persil), Purex is available at many national stores.
Seventh Generation, a major brand in the green product category, has plant-derived cleaning agents and enzymes. Its lineup includes Free & Clear Liquid for Sensitive Skin.
Tide, manufactured by Procter & Gamble, is the leading brand of laundry detergent and is sold at many national retailers. Tide makes a wide variety of detergents.

When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.