If you’ve ever reached into your dryer expecting to pull out a load of downy-soft laundry only to find a pile of stiff, starchy garments, there’s a good chance you’re using too much laundry detergent.
Laundry detergent obviously gets dirt and stains out of your clothes, but if you use too much, you wind up creating a new mess. This is a result of detergent residue that hasn’t been fully rinsed out, and it can turn your previously soft wardrobe into a crunchy, scratchy, uncomfortable-to-wear load of clothes. Too much detergent also creates a surplus of suds that can prevent your garments from rubbing against one another (which helps release trapped dirt from your clothes), according to Tide’s website.
Though it seems counterintuitive, the more detergent you use past a certain point, the dirtier your clothes become.
How much laundry detergent should you actually use?
To effectively clean your clothes, you need to use only 2 tablespoons per load at most—and that’s for big loads weighing 12 pounds or more. As staff writer Sarah Bodgan and senior staff writer Liam McCabe say in our guide to the best washing machines, 1 tablespoon is enough to thoroughly clean an average load, which usually weighs around 8 pounds. And if you’re hand-washing, Sarah recommends that you use even less. “When it comes to laundry detergent, a little will go a long way.”
The amount of detergent you should add varies greatly among brands, but keep in mind that the back of your bottle might recommend that you use more than 2 tablespoons per load. “Some detergent manufacturers are going to lie on the label,” Sarah warns in a Wirecutter video about laundry stripping. “But remember, they’re selling a product, and they want you to buy more of it.”
It can be even worse if you’re using high-efficiency (HE) detergent, which is made from high-concentration, low-sudsing formulas and can be used in both traditional and HE machines. Liam and Sarah explain that HE detergents are at least double the concentration of traditional detergents. To clean your clothes, a high-efficiency washer uses less water than a traditional washing machine, so there’s even less water to dilute the detergent.
Wirecutter recommends liquid detergent only, since it’s predisolved. Though pre-portioned pods are convenient, you have less control over the amount. This can quickly lead to a buildup of chemicals and cleaning agents that stiffen your laundry. We don’t recommend powder detergent, either, since it doesn’t always dissolve and can leave behind clumps in your laundry.
The best way to remove detergent buildup
To restore your wardrobe to its full glory, you need to remove the buildup of detergent burrowed into its fibers. Whirlpool advises soaking soiled laundry in a mixture of vinegar and water. In a deep sink or your bathtub, mix 1 cup vinegar into 1 quart water, and then toss in dirty clothes. If there are any visible detergent stains, rub the stained bit of the garment against itself to loosen the buildup. Whirlpool recommends soaking for up to an hour and then running the clothes through the washing machine in a normal wash cycle.
Laundry stripping, which is a similar method of removing detergent buildup, has recently gained popularity on TikTok. This method aims to remove any excess laundry detergent, fabric softener, body oils, and hard-water minerals that have built up in your clothes over time. And it involves a specific mixture of ingredients: a tubful of hot water, ½ cup borax, ½ cup washing soda, and a small amount of detergent. Add your laundry to the tub, and mix everything together, making sure all your clothes are submerged. After four hours, wring your clothes out well, and run them through a normal wash-and-dry cycle. Our experts don’t necessarily think stripping makes your laundry noticeably softer—but that’s not to say you shouldn’t try it if you want to strip all the trapped materials from your clothes. “Go for it,” Sarah says. “I have a feeling you’re not going to notice your towels being softer. You’re just going to know how disgusting you are—which is fine. We all are!”