Ned Ludd » Fabric Softener vs. Detergent: What’s the Difference?

Fabric Softener vs. Detergent: What’s the Difference?

Do you ever wonder whether you can interchange fabric softener with detergent and vice versa? Is there a difference between softener vs. detergent?

Although both products are essential for the laundry process, they are different and play different roles. If you’ve always wanted to know if fabric softener is the same as detergent, you have come to the right place!

In this article, I will explain the difference between softeners and detergents. You will also learn the correct way to use each product and what to do if you use one instead of the other.

So, let’s jump in and learn more about fabric softener and detergent.

Is There a Difference Between Fabric Softener and Detergent?

Is There a Difference Between Fabric Softener and Detergent

Fabric softeners and detergents are the most common product in any laundry room. These two are made differently and, therefore, serve different purposes.

So, what is fabric softener?

Fabric softener is a laundry product that helps to soften fabrics, making them feel nice and airy against the skin. Also known as conditioner, this product makes fabric less rough and reduces static, especially on bedsheets.

Aside from softening garments and making them smell good, softeners also minimize damage to the fabric during a washing cycle. Adding softener to a wash cycle softens the fabrics, causing them to glide over instead of rubbing coarsely against each other. This way, your clothes are less prone to damage and can last longer.

Another advantage of using softener in your wash cycles is that it can minimize fading. When softened, clothes do not rub roughly against one another, allowing them to retain their color and quality.

Lastly, if you fancy fresh fragrance, adding a bit of softener to your cycle can go a long way. Alternatively, you may forgo the fragrance and opt for a fragrance-free fabric conditioner.

Regardless of the brand, all fabric softeners contain more or less the same ingredients. Let’s look at the main ingredients that differentiate fabric softeners from detergents.

Fabric Softener vs. Detergent

Fabric Softener vs. Detergent

1. Conditioning blend

The conditioning ingredient is what softens the fabric. It is typically a blend of lubricants and oils which cover and get absorbed into the fabric’s fibers. The conditioning blend minimizes friction or static, leaving your garments nice, airy, and easy to wear or fold.

2. Emulsifier

Fabric conditioners contain polymers as well as micro and macro-emulsifiers. Emulsifiers allow the oils and lubricants that make up the conditioning blend to mix and dissolve in water.

The polymer in fabric softeners forms a mesh of particles that cover the garment’s surface. Meanwhile, the micro and macro emulsifier convert the conditioning agent into small and large molecules. The large molecules get absorbed into the water and then into the garment. The small molecules are directly absorbed into the fabric.

All three elements—polymer and micro and macro-emulsifiers help the conditioning agent coat and penetrate the fabric for effective softening action.

3. Fragrance and preservatives

There is no doubt that most fabric softeners smell good. Manufacturers have come up with cuddly and comforting fragrances that do an excellent job of masking any lingering odors, giving your clothes a lovely smell for days.

Fabric softer can last for weeks, thanks to preservatives in the solution. Most conditioners are good for several washes and do not need special storage or maintenance.

Now that you know what fabric softener is, let us learn about laundry detergent.

What is Laundry Detergent?

What is Laundry Detergent

The main difference between fabric softener vs. detergent is that detergent is primarily a cleaning agent. Detergent is made from a blend of enzymes and chemicals that work to loosen, lift, and dissolve dirt and odors from garments.

Today, most detergents contain whiteners and brighteners that help to protect colors, keeping clothes bright even after repeated washing. This is why it is important to choose good quality detergents. Some detergents are suitable for heavily stained clothes, while others contain a formula that protects delicate fibers.

Each brand has its own unique blend of ingredients. But, detergent generally contains these essential ingredients:

  • Alkali

The most common alkalies in fabric detergents are potassium hydroxide, baking soda, caustic soda, and borax. These alkaline salts dissolve in water and help to loosen dirt and stains effortlessly.

  • Sulfates

Like an alkali, sulfate is a soluble salt. Sulfates, also known as surfactants, lift the dirt off the fabric and send it to the water. The side of sulfate molecules that attracts water keeps the dirt suspended in the water until it is washed away.

  • Enzymes

Enzymes do all the heavy lifting in removing dirt and breaking down stains, resulting in sparkling clean clothes at the end of the wash cycle. Different enzymes, such as amylases, lipases, and proteases, work together to clean your clothes.

Detergents also contain preservatives to prolong their shelf life. The water conditioners and ph modifiers help to soften water, protecting your clothes and washer from the effects of hard water.

Can You Use Fabric Softener As Detergent?

You should not use fabric softener as a detergent if you want to clean clothes. Softener does not contain the cleaning agents present in washing detergent and so will not remove stains or get your clothes clean.

The best that fabric softener will do is give fragrance to your clothes. Without detergent, the clothes might have a nice smell for some time, but they will still be dirty.

First, wash your clothes using the right detergent for the best results. Then, add fabric softener to the rinse cycle and not sooner, allowing the detergent to drain away. Add the softener to the correct tray on your washer.

Which Fabrics Aren’t Good With Softeners?

Which Fabrics Aren’t Good With Softeners

Remember that the main purpose of fabric softener is to condition and soften clothes. The truth is, while detergent is absolutely necessary for cleaning clothes, fabric softener isn’t.

Some fabrics do not require a softener. If you must condition your clothes, use softeners on natural fabrics such as wool, cotton, and linen.

It would be best if you did not use fabric softener on the following items:

  • Towels

Towels are supposed to absorb the moisture on our skin. Softeners may make towels nice and soft, but the conditioning agent coats the towel’s surface, blocking the fibers from absorbing moisture from the skin. Softener makes your towels ineffective!

  • Fluffy clothing

It would seem that fluffy clothing could benefit from fabric conditioning, but this isn’t the case. Fabric softener will actually weigh down on the fluffy fibers, leaving them rough and unpleasantly spikey.

  • Baby clothes

This might come as a surprise, but you should avoid adding fabric softener to baby clothes. There is a common misconception that baby clothes need softening, but this could not be further from the truth. The ingredients in fabric softeners might be too harsh for baby’s sensitive skin, and the fragrance might be overpowering, so it is best to avoid these products. Baby clothes are made to be fire resistant, but softener strips away the flame-resistant compounds, leaving baby’s clothes less safe.

  • Microfiber fabrics

Microfiber is the same fabric used to manufacture sportswear, among other types of apparel. This fabric contains tiny spaces between the fiber strands that help absorb moisture. Softener clogs these tiny gaps when added to microfiber fabrics, removing the material’s sweat-wicking capabilities.

Mixing Fabric Softener with Detergent

Now that you know that fabric softener is not the same as detergent, you might wonder whether you can mix the two products to enjoy their benefits simultaneously.

I don’t recommend mixing fabric softener with detergent at home. The chances are that the blend will not be well-balanced, and the detergent will overpower the softener.

If you must use both, you can opt for one of the 2-in-1 products that incorporate softener and laundry detergent. Manufacturers use a special chemical membrane to separate the softener and detergent despite being part of the same cleaning product.

If you buy softener and detergent separately, follow the instructions on use. Place each product in its respective compartment and use it at the right time of the washing cycle.

So, what can you do if you accidentally use a softener instead of a detergent? Well, this can happen to the best of us, but luckily there is a solution. Allow the wash cycle to run with the softener, after which you can add detergent to the washer and run another cycle to clean the clothes and remove the softener.

Summary: Is Fabric Softener The Same As Detergent?

As we’ve learned, fabric softener is not the same detergent, and the two should never be interchanged. Softeners will condition and soften fabrics but will not remove dirt, bacteria, stains, and odors from already unclean clothes; that’s the detergent’s job. Ideally, you should keep these products separately and not mix them on your own. A 2-in-1 product will offer you the benefits of detergent and softener. I hope this article has helped you understand the difference between fabric softeners and detergents.


Leave a Comment