Detergent manufacturers wish you'd waste more detergent

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Efficient machines and savvy consumers depress detergent companies' bottom lines

Pity the poor detergent makers: Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that the rise in efficient washing machines requiring far less water to launder clothes than earlier models has also resulted in consumers using far less detergentthan before. (Or, depending how you look at it, you might say: consumers are finally starting to use the right amount of laundry detergent, rather than wastefully using too much, as many of us are wont to do.)

From 2009 through 2013, total U.S. detergent sales have fallen 6.4% (even as the country's population increased by more than 10 million people, from 306.77 million in July 2009 to 316.98 million in July 2013).

This decline can't be blamed on the recession — people need clothes and clothes need washing no matter how the economy's doing. And there certainly hasn't been any decrease in the population, nor in the average number of clothes each person owns and needs to launder.

So what's changed? Water-efficiency standards for appliances, including washing machines.

Suds are a sign

It all boils down to soap suds. Here's the thing: suds are a sign that you're using more soap than you need. And if you put “too much” soap into a dishwasher or washing machine, the results can be horribly messy. You might have seen the sitcom trope – or, if you're unlucky, personally experienced the minor household catastrophe – somebody puts far too much into a washer and only realizes it after soap suds start erupting out of the machine onto the kitchen or laundry room floor.

So if you see actual suds, chances are you're using too much detergent or soap. But how much is too much? That varies depending on a number of factors, including how much water is involved, but generally speaking: the more water you're using, the more soap you'll need.

So an amount of detergent that didn't generate any suds in an old water-intensive washing machine will start making suds in a newer, more efficient model. And when consumers see their sudsy machines, they compensate by using less detergent.

Here's something I accidentally discovered years ago, when I still washed my clothes in laundromats: for pretty much every brand of laundry detergent I've used, I've been able to get my clothes clean with much smaller doses of detergent than the official manufacturers' recommendation.

Smaller doses

Incidentally, have you ever wondered why those doses are so difficult to precisely measure? If you use liquid detergent, with their bottlecaps doubling as measuring cups, you've surely noticed how the cup tends to be muchlarger than the recommended dose of detergent. And the “fill line” indicating how much to pour in the cup is incredibly hard to see, a barely raised line the same color as the cup itself … if any drug companies tried packaging their liquid medications like that, they'd soon be sued into oblivion after too many patients accidentally overdosed on their products.

But accidentally overdosing a load of clothes with laundry detergent doesn't have the same consequences, especially not in the days when machines used huge amounts of water and the extra unneeded detergent simply rinsed away – and, arguably, such waste boosted the detergent companies' bottom line, too.

Yet ordinary consumers might never have suspected how much detergent they were wasting – until they switched to a new, water-efficient washing machine and had to cut down on the detergent after having problems with suds or “soap scum.”

Whether you have an old-model washing machine or a new high-efficiency model, here's a money-saving experiment worth trying: next time you do a load of laundry, try a smaller-than-usual dose of your regular detergent — say, if you usually fill that cup all the way to the fill line, try filling it only 90% of the way. If the resulting load of laundry comes out clean, then try another 10-percent detergent reduction for the next load.

Depending on which brand of detergent you use, the efficiency of your washer, and how “dirty” your average load of laundry actually is, you might be able to reduce your detergent usage by up to 50% — while your clothes get as clean as they ever did.

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