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Soaps and Detergents

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 5 Jul 2010 | comments*Discuss
Soaps Detergents Biological Detergent

You certainly can’t clean without soaps and detergents, but ever wondered what the difference was between them?

Soaps and detergents both act to reduce the surface-tension of water so that it is able to wash dirt and grime away more effectively. They also both help to lift the dirt and grease particles off during cleaning. However, there are some important differences between them and different situations when they should be used.


  • Are made of natural materials (usually the product of the chemical reaction occurring when plant or animal fats and oils are mixed with an alkali)
  • Are a more natural product and less harmful when used to clean the body
  • Can be in hard bar or soft liquid form
  • Is kinder on the environment because it is made of biodegradable materials
  • Does not cause pollution in lakes and rivers
  • Is not as toxic to wildlife and plants
  • Deteriorates faster in storage
  • Loses its cleaning power over time
  • Reacts with minerals in hard water to form ‘soap scum’ – an insoluble film that clogs drains and pipes. It also sticks to clothing in the laundry, resulting in a build-up over time, which leaves an unpleasant odour and causes the fabric to deteriorate.
The best soaps to use on the skin are those where the glycerine has not been removed at the end of the production process, as these will not leave the skin feeling dry. Any soaps with extra emollients added, such as jojoba oil or shea butter, are also better for the skin. Try not to use soaps with sodium laureth sulphate as this compound is very harsh on the skin. Soaps made only from vegetable oil (“castile soaps”) are the gentlest, most natural soaps, which can be used for sensitive skin.


  • Are made using synthetic chemicals, including propylene – a waste product of the petroleum industry
  • Tend to be used in household cleaning rather than personal use – such as laundry, dishwashing and other cleaning
  • Are easier to produce
  • Are more adaptable
  • React less with minerals in water
  • Is preferable to soap for use in the laundry and other household cleaning chores
  • Can be specially designed for specific cleaning tasks e.g. with oxidants to help in bleaching or with enzymes to help in digesting the proteins, fats and carbohydrates in food stains. These are called biological detergents and are very popular as they are effective even in cold water, which helps to save energy and is also kinder on fabrics.
  • Can be specially formulated for use in certain machines e.g. low-suds detergents for front-loading washing machines.
  • Can contain abrasives, which help to scour during cleaning or acids to descale
  • Can contain chemicals to modify the pH of water and/or water softeners, which fight the effects of calcium deposits in hard water.
  • Are believed to cause skin allergies
  • Causes significant pollution to the environment
  • Are very toxic to fish and wildlife
In fact, many cleaning agents nowadays are a mixture of soaps and detergents, with the combination carefully determined so as to extract the maximum benefits from the two different bases. Remember, biological detergents (those containing enzymes) should never be used on delicate, natural fabrics like silk and wool. It is best to look for products that are either phosphate-free or low in phosphates, artificial fragrances and dyes when choosing a laundry detergent, as these are believed to irritate the skin.

Adding fabric softener separately, rather than having it combined with the detergent, is also a better choice. To help preserve the environment, choose detergents that are made from biodegradable, renewable ingredients – these are often found in health food or environmentally friendly shops.

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