Fabric Softener vs Laundry Detergent | What’s the Difference?

The laundry aisle is packed with an overwhelming selection of laundry products. If you are stocking your laundry room for the first time, you may wonder about the difference between a fabric softener vs laundry detergent. Should you ditch one, or should you prefer one over the other? What should you pick if you are trying to cut down on the number of products for your laundry shelf?

Fabric softener and laundry detergent are two different products with dissimilar laundry actions. Laundry detergent has a formulation designed in removing stains, dirt buildups, and debris in clothes. Fabric softener, on the other hand, is for softening fabrics. It is an add-on formula that helps protect the clothes even through multiple washes.

When fronted with the necessity of picking fabric softener or laundry detergent, what would you choose? Of course, you need to prioritize the laundry detergent. You can wash your clothes with it and ditch the fabric conditioner, but not the other way around.

What is Laundry Detergent?

Laundry detergent is a cleaning agent made of synthetic and man-made derivatives for washing laundry. It came from the word detergency, the process of removing unwanted substances by a surface-active agent. A laundry detergent may contain one or more active surfactants combined with other ingredients to increase detergency.

Traditionally, detergents are in powdered or granular solid or bar form. But, as washing machine use increased, liquid detergent was also industrially produced. Thus, the laundry aisle today may flaunt you with different product detergent formulations such as,

  • Liquid detergent
  • Powder detergent
  • Soap bars
  • Pods
  • Ultra-detergents (concentrated liquid or powder)
  • Single-use detergent
  • Combination detergents (may contain bleach and/or fabric softener)

What is a Fabric Softener?

Fabric softener is a laundry formula added to the rinse cycle to soften the laundry and reduce static cling. It contains conditioning agents, emulsifiers, and other synthetic raw materials. The result of using fabric softener is softer, less wrinkled, and fragrant laundry.

Fabric softener is available popularly as a liquid composition. Often, you will see dryer sheets marketed as fabric softeners but these two works differently. A fabric softener conditions the clothes, while dryer sheets are designed mainly to reduce static cling.

How are Fabric Softener and Laundry Detergents Different?

There is no contesting between the effectiveness of fabric softener and laundry detergent because they have different laundry roles. Their ingredients and compositions are also different, though undoubtedly, both are essential in laundering.

Simply saying, laundry detergents are like shampoo and fabric softeners are the conditioner to clothes. To understand their differences better, here is a breakdown of their composition.

Laundry Detergents Key Ingredients

The complexity of the components of laundry detergents increases over time. It is due to the attempt of manufacturers in producing environment-friendly yet powerful cleaning agents. But the key ingredients of laundry detergents include:


These are the surface-active ingredients which are either sulfates or alcohol compounds. Its primary job is to improve the water’s wetting ability, remove dirt from the fabric, and prevent them from reattaching.


Builders like sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) are the next important ingredient in general-purpose laundry detergents. It softens the water to increase the efficiency and concentration of the surfactants.

Alkaline agents

Sodium carbonate and sodium silicate are alkaline agents in laundry detergents. They react with the stain to spontaneously clean and remove them from the fabric.

Processing Aids

Alcohol is a processing aid present in liquid detergents that act as a solvent for its ingredients. Sodium sulfate is found in powder detergents to provide crisp and free-flowing powders.

Catalytic enzymes

They target specific enzymes and break them down for easy removal from the fabric.

Other ingredients like oxygen bleach are added to improve the cleaning efficacy of the detergent. Colorants, fragrances, and sud-control agents are also added to improve the appearance of the product.

Fabric Softener Key Ingredients

The formulation of fabric softener is aimed at producing superior softness and color-retention of the fabric. They are absorbed into the fiber to lubricate the surface and reduce inter-fiber friction within the clothes.

Conditioning Agents

The molecules of the conditioning agent bind with the negatively charged fabric fibers to reduce static and soften them. Dehydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride and silicone derivatives are common conditioning agents in fabric softeners.


They bind with the conditioning agents to form a stable mixture. Without emulsifiers, the fabric softener will separate into two phases, similar to oil in water.

Other Ingredients

Emulsion stabilizers and preservatives are added to fabric softeners to ensure their quality and keep it stable. Colors and fragrances also add a final touch to make the product more pleasing.

Can I Use Fabric Softener and Laundry Detergent During the Same Load?

For individual products, fabric softener and laundry detergent do not go into the load at the same time. Also, never mix laundry detergent and fabric softener together. Fabric softener is only added during the final rinse. The reason is the incompatibility of the cleansing ingredients of laundry detergent to the chemicals of the softener. Thus, laundry detergent is first removed from the clothes for the softener to work properly.

How Do You Use Fabric Softener and Laundry Detergent Together?

Admittedly, a fabric softener or dryer sheet is an extra chore in laundering. If you are not keen on buying too many products, you may find combination detergents a little convenient. Combination detergents incorporate fabric softener into laundry detergents and are often advertised in the package. But unless otherwise stated, do not combine the softener and detergent in one wash cycle. However, some washers already have a separate compartment for fabric softeners that you can fill before you start your load.

Does Fabric Softener Clean Your Clothes?

Fabric softeners do not contain cleaning agents. Therefore, they will not, in any way, clean and remove sweat and oil from clothes.

Can You Use Fabric Softener Instead of Detergent?

Fabric softener and laundry detergent should not be used interchangeably. If you want clean clothes, buy a laundry detergent. If you want to minimize ironing your clothes, use a fabric softener afterward.

What Should You Do if You Accidentally Used Fabric Softener Instead of a Laundry Detergent?

Using fabric softener instead of laundry detergent will not harm your clothes, but it will not clean them either. So, let your wash cycle finish, then re-wash them with a laundry detergent. If you don’t consider the waste, you can use a fabric softener again in the final rinse.

Can You Buy Fabric Softener and Detergent 2-in-1 Products?

If you don’t want to hassle yourself choosing between fabric softener and laundry detergent, some brands do sell their combination. The 2-in-1 products are ideal for people who want to simplify their laundry chores.

Tide with Downy Liquid Detergent

Tide with Downy Liquid Laundry Detergent Soap, High Efficiency (HE), April Fresh Scent, 59 Loads (92 Fl Oz)

This liquid concentration from the leading laundry brand combines the power of detergent with the softening agent of Downy. It offers freshness and color protection while adding a smooth layer of comfort to clothes. Tide Liquid Laundry Detergent is an economical choice if you want to save on your detergent and water.

Tide PODS Plus Downy

Tide PODS Plus Downy 4 in 1 HE Turbo Laundry Detergent Pacs, April Fresh Scent, 61 Count Tub - Packaging May Vary

For high-efficiency (HE) machine use, Tide plus Downy pods are a way to go. Every small pod contains the cleaning power of detergent and the softening effect of fabric softener. Its 4-in1 action is geared toward cleaning, protecting colors, fighting stains, and damage protection of laundries.

Is There Ever a Time to Not Use a Fabric Softener?

Some garments are not designed for fabric softener application as they risk damaging the cloth’s materials. These include microfibers, fleece, fluffy fabrics, athletic wear, and baby clothes. If you are unsure, check the label of your clothes before using a fabric softener.

What are the Best Laundry Detergents? Gain Laundry Detergent Liquid Soap Plus Aroma Boost, Original Scent, HE Compatible, 96 Loads Total, 75 Fl Oz (Pack of 2)

Many brands can vie for the best laundry detergents in the market. When it comes to cleaning power and value, Gain Liquid Detergent Plus Aroma-Boost is the top choice of many consumers. This product works well in all types of washing machines and gives clothes freshness that lasts up to 6 weeks.

Tide Liquid Laundry Detergent Soap, High Efficiency (HE), Original Scent, 64 Loads

Tide Liquid Detergent is also one of the best laundry detergent products trusted by consumers. Considered America’s number one detergent, it is an excellent agent in cleaning, freshening, whitening, and brightening clothes.

Source link: https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Liquid-Laundry-Detergent/zgbs/hpc/15342931

What are the Best Fabric Softeners?

Downy Infusions Liquid Laundry Fabric Softener, Calm Scent, Lavender & Vanilla Bean, 166 Total Loads (Pack of 2)

Downy Infusion Liquid Fabric Softener is the leading fabric softener preferred by many users. It goes well with any laundry detergent and makes clothes soft and comfy while leaving a relaxing fragrance. Downy also has a wide range of product selections in different scents and packaging.

Gain Fabric Softener, Original Scent, 41 fl oz, 48 loads, HE Compatible, Pack of 4, (Packaging May Vary)

The indulgent softness of Gain Fabric Softener is also boon to many consumers. Gain’s fabric softener has matching scents across its line of products like detergent, dryer sheets, and scent booster beads.

What Costs More Fabric Softener or Laundry Detergent?

The price difference between fabric softener vs laundry detergent varies per brand, concentration, and formulation. Generally, detergent costs more than the softener but with a small cost difference. They are also priced differently in their form: powdered laundry detergent is way cheaper than liquid ones.

Related Questions

What is Fabric Conditioner?

Fabric softener and fabric conditioner mean the same thing. The term used depends on the branding and region of the manufacturer. For example, in the United States, it is called a fabric softener while in the United Kingdom it is termed a fabric conditioner.

Is Fabric Softener Available in Pods?

Dropps Fabric Softener Laundry Pods, 32 Count, Lavender Eucalyptus Fragrance, Washing Detergent Scent Booster For Washer

Yes, the same ingredient in liquid fabric softener is also available in pods like the Dropps Fabric Softener Pods. However, fab-con in pods are a bit more expensive than the liquid form.

Does Fabric Softener Do the Same Thing as a Dryer Sheet?

Both the fabric softener and dryer sheet do make the laundry soft and fragrant. However, these two are different products. Fabric softener lends the clothes extra softness and lesser wrinkles. Dryer sheets are more effective in removing the static in clothes after drying. Simply saying, fabric softener is added during rinsing while dryer sheets go into the dryer.

Final Thoughts

Fabric softener vs laundry detergent is an important fact everyone should learn to identify. Laundry detergent is a cleaning agent and a necessity in every laundry room. Fabric softener is what some people call an “unnecessary purchase,” but it goes a long way in preserving the quality of clothes. Adding a fabric softener to your shopping list is your personal choice. However, if you want fab-con quality laundry without the extra bottle, there are also combo products that you can try.