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Simple Science: The Difference Between Soap and Detergent

American consumers often use the words “soap” and “detergent” interchangeably, but in reality there are significant differences between these two types of cleaners.

A Brief History

The earliest evidence of soap can be traced back to 2800 B.C., where historians believe it was used by the ancient Babylonians. Soap making is mentioned in ancient Roman documents written as early as 70 A.D.

Fast forward to Medieval Europe where soap making is an established craft with centers in France, Spain and Italy. During that time the use of soap was a luxury enjoyed mainly by those who could afford it. Manufactured bar soaps weren’t available until the late 18th century in Europe and the U.S. Widespread use of soap during this period can be attributed to advertising campaigns touting the relationship between good personal hygiene and health.

Detergents entered the picture about 1916 when World War 1 soap ingredient shortages encouraged manufacturers to develop synthetic cleaners to meet demand. By the 1950s detergents had overtaken traditional soap products in homes across America. Today, detergents are used for laundering, dishwashing and many other types of cleaning.

The Chemistry

Soaps are made from natural ingredients, such as plant oils (coconut, vegetable, palm, pine) or acids derived from animal fat. Detergents, on the other hand, are synthetic, man-made derivatives. While soap is limited in its applications, detergents can be formulated to include other ingredients for all sorts of cleaning purposes. Perhaps the most common and versatile of these ingredients are surfactants … surface active agents.

About Surfactants

Surfactants aid in cleaning because they reduce surface tension and improve water's ability to spread evenly over it. This creates a more uniform wetness that makes dirt and soil easier to wipe away and remove. Surfactant molecules can also have either a positive or negative charge, with one end attracted to water and the other end attracted to dirt and grease. This helps detergents attach to dirt, break it up and let water wash it away.

Most cleaning products today are detergents. One of the biggest reasons for this is the way soap reacts with water. While detergents are free-rinsing (meaning they don’t leave a residue), soap needs a clear water wash after application or it will leave a film.

Hard water is the enemy of soap. In hard water conditions soaps form scum. Soap scum affects more than just cleanliness; it can deteriorate fabrics and eventually ruin clothing or other surfaces. Conversely, detergents can work in any level of water hardness since they react less to the many minerals in hard water.

Finally, soaps need warm water to work at all. Detergents, on the other hand, can be built to perform well in any water temperature. This versatility enables detergents to be used in everything from shampoo to laundry liquid to hand cleansers and stain removers.

Powder Detergent


Less messy than liquid detergent

Tends to be cheaper per load than liquid or pods

Generally more shelf-stable than liquid or pods, so it will last longer

Has more eco-friendly packaging

Amount of powder used per load is customizable

Lightweight compared to liquid detergents

Works well on heavily soiled clothes, such as sports uniforms


Some powder detergents have trouble dissolving in colder water, which can leave residue on clothes

Can be used for pretreating clothes, but you need to make a paste or dissolve it first, adding an additional step to your laundry routine

Needs to be kept dry

Messier than pods

Best for

Powder detergent is a smart pick for extra-dirty loads, says Mary Gagliardi, aka “Dr. Laundry,” Clorox's in-house scientist and cleaning expert. “Powder detergent is usually formulated at a higher pH, which can optimize cleaning of heavily soiled work clothes and sports uniforms,” she says.

Laura Johnson, a research and development expert with the LG Electronics home appliances lab, points to money- and environment-saving benefits. “Powder detergent is best for consumers who are looking for eco-friendlier packaging,” she says. “It’s also a better budget option for consumers.”

Dishwasher Liquid vs. Dishwasher Detergent

Clean Dishes

Not only should you know the difference between dish soap and dishwashing detergent, you might also be interested in learning the difference between dishwasher liquid and dishwasher detergent.

Dishwasher liquid is usually better able to mix with water, which can affect how wide the liquid can spread inside of your dishwasher. Dishwashing detergent doesn't dissolve as well in water, which is why it's often best that you use it with warm water. What this all boils down to is that the same amount of dishwasher liquid will need to be used in order to get the same cleaning ability as a dishwasher detergent.

Another difference between dishwasher liquids and detergents is that liquids can sometimes stick to the inside of your dishwasher. You might notice signs of corrosion inside of your dishwasher if there is residue from dishwasher liquid inside of it. While these corrosion deposits are easy to scrape off, they aren't always so easy to find.

Now that you better understand the difference between dishwasher detergent and dish soap, make sure that you use caution the next time you reach for that random bottle with the sparking glass on it while washing dishes in the sink or in the dishwasher.

Which Cleans Better? Liquid vs. Powder Detergent

It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it! And if you're the one on laundry duty, you'll want some serious detergent to get those soiled clothes clean. With the help of water, and the rotation of the washer's inner drum (in a front-load machine) or spindle-like agitator (in a top-load machine), detergent lifts dirt, stains, and odors away.

But when it comes to cost, convenience, and cleaning power, not all detergents are equal. The two main types, powder and liquid, are suitable for use in standard or high-efficiency top-load or front-load washers at any water temperature. So which should you choose? Ahead, we break down their differences with six key comparisons—liquid vs. powder detergent—to help you decide which is best for your family's laundry.

Powder detergent is more effective on mud stains; liquid detergent is better on grease stains.

Alkylbenzene sulfonate, the main surfactant (cleaning agent) in powder detergents such as Tide Original HE Turbo Powder ($12.95 per 95 oz. on Amazon), is generally more effective in lifting mud, grass, and bloodstains, which makes powder a great option for garden and athletic attire. In contrast, the alcohol ethoxylates in liquid detergents like Persil ProClean Power Original Liquid Detergent ($17.99 per 75 oz. on Amazon) easily break down grease stains from cooking oil to car grease, making liquid detergents a top choice for everyday wear.

3 Reliable Methods of Medical Sterilization

1. Plasma Gas Sterilizers

Plasma sterilization utilizes low temperature hydrogen peroxide gas plasma within a chamber to kill all living microorganisms on medical and dental equipment, including bacteria, spores, viruses, and fungi. When vaporized hydrogen peroxide is added to the chamber, equipment within the enclosure becomes sterile. Once the vapor is removed from the chamber, a low temperature plasma is produced, ensuring complete sterilization for all tools. The remnants of this process are water and oxygen, making operations safe for both medical staff and the environment. Although plasma sterilization is a more expensive method, it's highly effective and ideal for moisture sensitive medical tools.

2. Autoclaves


An autoclave is a large, steel vessel or chamber that circulates steam at high temperature and pressure to sterilize various items, or as part of an industrial process. Industrial autoclave processes may include rubber vulcanization, composite parts processing, and structural adhesive bonding. Autoclaves are one of the most economical methods of sterilization, while still having a short cycle time.

3. Vaporized Hydrogen Peroxide Sterilizers

Similar to plasma sterilization, vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP) sterilizers also utilize hydrogen peroxide vapor, but plasma gas isn't used within the process. VHP sterilizers remove humidity from an enclosure and hydrogen peroxide vapor is rapidly injected by a generator to reach an effective concentration to sterilize equipment. These vapors effectively remove micro-organisms that may be present, sterilizing the enclosure. The generator then reverses the process, breaking down the hydrogen peroxide vapor into environmentally friendly elements. This method has one of the lowest cycle times, resulting in the ability to sterilize equipment in high volume batches.

In order to be effective, all three methods require precise control of pressure at each step within the sterilization process. Without control of pressure levels, micro-organisms can still be present in the enclosed area, resulting in unsterile equipment. Pressure transducers provide accurate measurements of pressure, enabling all three methods to be highly effective. Since each method has unique processes for sterilization, there are many considerations to keep in mind for selecting the right pressure transducer.

  • Created: 09-03-22
  • Last Login: 09-03-22

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