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How Much Laundry Detergent Do You Need? (Way Less Than You’re Using)

Man pouring laundry detergent into a measuring cup
Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock

You’re wasting a ton of money every year (and getting worse results from your washing machine too) because you put too much detergent in. You might be shocked at how little you actually need.

We’re All Using Too Much Detergent

Practically everyone puts too much detergent in their washing machine, whether it’s an old top-loading model or a newer front-loading high-efficiency one. This is partially the fault of the detergent makers (who encourage you to use more than you need) and partially the fault of our brains (who have a more-is-better bias).

But too much detergent isn’t just a waste of money; it’s also bad for your washer and your clothes. Excess detergent just ends up sent down the drain but not before leaving residue on your clothes. That residue can show up as chalky marks on your clothing and give clothes and towels a crunchy or sticky feeling.

Excess detergent also encourages a build-up of soap scum and biofilm in your washer, which leads to stinky clothing and towels. In fact, using less detergent is one of our tips in our guide to dealing with smelly towels. In extreme cases, even, pouring too much detergent into your washing machine can generate error codes and even damage the machine.

Despite our general inclination towards using too much detergent, if you’ve ever accidentally run a cycle without putting detergent in you know that the detergent is actually not all that important unless your clothes are seriously soiled.

I remember walking down to the laundry room to switch out a load of laundry and, while en route, remembering that I never put the detergent in. Much to my surprise, my clothing was clean and odor-free (neither smelling dirty nor smelling like fresh laundry).

Warm water itself is a pretty great cleaning agent, and just an hour of jostling and rinsing in warm water had done a great job cleaning the clothes. We certainly aren’t going to recommend not using detergent at all, but it highlights how we overemphasize the role the detergent plays.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how much detergent you need for your high-efficiency and traditional washing machine.

How Much Detergent Do You Need for a High-Efficiency Washer?

We’ll break it down for you in a moment, but if you want the straight-to-the-point answer: use two teaspoons of liquid detergent or two tablespoons of powdered detergent. That’s barely a splash of detergent in the dispenser (or if you use a large bottle with a valve, about a one-second press of the dispenser button).

We’re not kidding. High-efficiency washers need next to no detergent to operate super efficiently. Whether you’re using liquid detergent or powder, you barely need any. In fact, if you have really soft water, you can even use even less. Whether your water is naturally soft or you use a softener, you can get by with 1-1.5 teaspoons or tablespoons, for liquid and powder respectively, instead.

high efficiency washer and dryer in a pretty laundry room

Even if your clothing is really soiled, you barely need to increase the amount of detergent used. For super dirty clothing (especially clothing that is soiled with oils or grease) you can increase the amount by about 50% (so you’d use three teaspoons of liquid detergent instead of two). As a general rule though, soiled clothing benefits more from a longer wash time with more water than more detergent. If you’re washing really dirty clothes it’s more useful to use the pre-soak or pre-wash function on your washing machine than heap in more detergent.

No matter the amount of powdered detergent you’re using, skip the dispenser and add the powder right into the load by pouring it into the washer drum. The dispensers are fine for liquid detergent but do a poor job with powders.

How Much Detergent Do You Need for a Regular Top-Load Washer?

Top-loading washers are a bit more foolproof when it comes to detergent because they use so much more water than high-efficiency washers (unless, of course, you have a high-efficiency top loader). Your too-much-detergent sins are washed away via dilution. Nonetheless, you still don’t want to waste money dumping in more detergent than you need.

When dosing for a top-loading washing machine use two tablespoons of liquid detergent or four tablespoons (1/4 cup) of powder.

All Free Clear Laundry Detergent

Even a modest size jug of liquid laundry detergent goes a long way when you're only using a little for each load.

Like with the high-efficiency washers, adjust based on water softness, but skip increasing the portion based on soil level. Between the already increased volume of detergent and double the amount of water, you don’t typically need it. If you have really soft water, you can dial it back to 1-1.5 tablespoons of liquid detergent or 2-3 tablespoons of powder.

And again, we’re talking about a regular load of clothes here. If you’re washing fewer items, use less detergent. If you’re washing a big load or heavily-soiled items, use more.

You Be the Judge and Use as Little as You Need

The above guidelines are just suggestions. The reality is that you need minimal detergent to get the job done—and anyone who has swished some water around in a nearly empty jug of detergent and still gotten a clean load of laundry can attest to that.

Modern washers, even top loaders, are much better at their job than older washers. Most of the washing is done by the water and the mechanical movement in the washer.

In light of that, you can experiment with dialing back how much laundry detergent you use until you hit that sweet spot based on your needs.

If you rarely wash workout clothes and almost all your laundry is work clothes from your job in a climate-controlled office, for instance, you might find that you only need a tiny bit of detergent to get the job done.

On the other hand, if you or someone in your home works outside all day in the heat and really dirty working conditions, adjust your dose accordingly. Keep in mind, though, that overall the presoak and extra rinse functions are almost always more effective than just heaping in more detergent.

Now that we have the laundry detergent mystery squared away, we have a parting tip for you. In addition to cutting back on the amount of detergent you use, the other big thing you can do to keep your washer fresh-smelling is to keep the door open. It’s one of the easiest things you can do to keep your high-efficiency washer mold and mildew-free.

Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Editor in Chief of LifeSavvy. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at LifeSavvy, Review Geek, How-To Geek, and Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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