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What is High Efficiency Laundry Detergent?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 16, 2024
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High efficiency laundry detergent is detergent that has been specially formulated for use in front-loading, energy efficient washing machines. It is manufactured differently from standard laundry detergent. Front loading washing machines and machines branded “high efficiency” typically require high efficiency laundry detergent. High efficiency laundry detergent can also be used in traditional washing machines.

A big part of why high efficiency washing machines need special detergent is that they use significantly less water than traditional washing machines. Doing laundry in a traditional, top-loading washing machine typically requires several gallons of water. These machines clean clothes and fabrics by agitating them in soapy water, then rinsing and spinning. In the late 1990s, the high efficiency laundry movement sought to make the process of doing laundry more environmentally conservative.

High efficiency machines use roughly a quarter of the water of traditional washers. They usually operate on a front-load system where clothes are loaded into a drum that cleans not by spinning and agitating, but by lifting and dropping. Most high efficiency laundry detergent contains the same cleansing agents as traditional laundry detergent, but it does not usually foam or make suds at all.

Traditional laundry detergent makes far more suds than a high efficiency washing machine can handle. Laundry detergent manufacturers solved this problem by introducing high efficiency laundry detergent. This kind of detergent is usually marketed as “HE laundry detergent,” and features a uniform HE logo that consumers can recognize from brand to brand. Almost all brands of detergent make both a standard and a HE product.

Using HE laundry detergent is not generally any different from using traditional detergent. Most of the time, a certain measured amount of the HE detergent must be added to the washing machine as clothes are loaded in. One typically does not need to use as much detergent when using an HE variety, which can be seen as one of its benefits. It must be kept in mind, however, that most HE bottles are smaller and the product more concentrated. This means that there is less detergent to begin with, and that the overall strength of product applied is not much different from a traditional detergent, despite the different dosages.

High efficiency laundry detergent is usually available as both a liquid and a powder. Selecting the appropriate product is largely a matter of choice, but may also depend on machine specifications. The majority of HE washing machines can take any kind of detergent, so long as it is HE optimized. Some require specific brands or varieties.

There are not usually any problems with using HE laundry detergent in regular washing machines. Although high efficiency laundry detergent will not make suds, it will nonetheless clean clothes in a lot of water. Nothing about the higher levels of water in traditional washers usually diminishes its efficacy. It may not always make economical sense to use HE detergent in a traditional washer, however. HE detergents are usually a bit more expensive than traditional detergents, and the tendency is to use more than is strictly needed to compensate for the lack of suds and the greater amount of water.

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