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

What’s the difference between fabric softener and laundry detergent? 

Are they interchangeable? 

Does fabric softener clean clothes, or do you always have to use laundry detergent to get the job done?

In this comparison of fabric softener vs. laundry detergent, I’ll answer all of these questions and more.

You’ll find out how fabric softener and laundry detergent work, how they’re different, when to use each, and what to do when you accidentally use one without the other.

Read on to find out everything you need to know.

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What’s the Difference Between Fabric Softener and Laundry Detergent?

To put it simply, laundry detergent is formulated to clean fabrics by removing dirt, stains, oil, sweat, and other debris. Fabric softener is designed to reinforce, protect, and soften your clothes, keeping them in good condition throughout multiple washings.

They each fulfill an important but different role in properly caring for your clothes.

Detergent is a mix of chemicals and enzymes that remove dirt, buildup, and bacteria from fabrics. It’s formulated to remove stains from textiles and preserve the color of your garments over time. The key ingredients in laundry detergent are:

  • Alkalies – a special kind of dissolvable salt and a base compound that reacts with it (mainly used for stain and dirt removal).
  • Sulfates or alcohol compounds – are surfactants that suspend dirt in water and prevent it from re-attaching to the clothes.
  • Catalytic Enzymes – used to target specific kinds of dirt and break it down.
  • pH modifiers, water conditioners, and preservatives – for functional purposes, such as preventing hard-water damage to textiles.

Fabric softener, sometimes referred to as fabric conditioner, protects clothing by strengthening the fabric fibers and reducing friction during the washing process. The main ingredients in fabric softener include:

  • Conditioning agent – to prevent static and create the “slippery” barrier that gives the fabric its softness.
  • Emulsifiers – to make the oils in the product water-soluble.
  • Preservatives – to keep the formula stable
  • Fragrances – there are plenty of fragrance-free options as well.

A helpful way to think about laundry detergent vs. fabric softener is to view the former as “shampoo” for clothing, while the latter is “conditioner.”

Strictly speaking, fabric softener isn’t necessary for effective laundering. However, it can extend the lifetime of clothing and makes the fabric smoother and better-smelling than it would be without.

Can You Use Fabric Softener as an Alternative to Laundry Detergent to Clean Clothes?

The short answer to this question is no; you can’t use fabric softener as an alternative to laundry detergent. Fabric softener doesn’t include the cleaning agents, such as the enzymes and alkalies previously mentioned, necessary to remove dirt and stains. It’s harmless to use fabric softener on its own, but it won’t actually clean your clothes.

If you run out of detergent, your best option is to handwash your clothing until you can get more. Using softener without detergent will make your clothes feel softer and smell better, but it won’t remove dirt, stains, and oils.

Another alternative is to use baking soda or borax in the washing machine, as these do a decent job of removing dirt and stains from fabrics.

It’s important to note that you should never use dishwashing liquid, hair shampoo, or conditioner to wash fabrics. They will wreak havoc on your clothes and can severely damage or destroy your washing machine.

And never, under any circumstances, wash your clothes in the dishwasher (here’s why).

What to Do If You Accidentally Use Fabric Softener Instead of Laundry Detergent

It’s easy to mix up laundry detergent and fabric softener since the packaging for both is usually similar in size and color.

If you accidentally put fabric softener in the detergent slot when doing your laundry, don’t panic — it won’t damage your clothing or washing machine.

The only thing you’ll have wasted is a little bit of fabric softener, some water, and an hour or so of your time. Simply re-wash your clothes, and this time make sure you add detergent in its proper place.

When You Should and Shouldn’t Use Fabric Softener

Fabric softener is formulated for use on cotton and linen fabrics, and it’s usually a safe bet to use softener when it comes to textiles made from these materials.

However, there are a few situations when you should avoid the use of fabric softener.

Here are a few to keep in mind. Don’t use fabric softener when:

  • Washing microfiber towels
  • Cleaning moisture-wicking fabrics (like the ones often used in athletic wear)
  • Washing baby clothes (the softener could damage the fire-resistant qualities generally included in the manufacture of these garments)
  • Fluffy fabrics such as fleece, velour, and terry cloth
  • With towels, alternate loads with and without fabric softener (fabric softener can reduce absorption)
  • Applying products directly to fabrics (this will leave an oily stain)

It’s always a good idea to review the labels on products’ packaging before you use it. Fabric softener is no exception.

How to Properly Use Laundry Detergent and Fabric Softener

Modern washing machines make using detergent and fabric softener simple and easy. Generally, there is a separate, labeled section for each, and you simply fill the correct compartment with its respective product.

Double-check the compartment labels so the detergent and softener release at the right time. The detergent will release during the wash cycle, and the softener will release during the final rinse.

With older machines that require the manual addition of laundry products, start with the detergent and then stop the load during the final rinse cycle and add the fabric softener before continuing.

Another option is to use a fabric softener ball, such as the Downy Ball. With these products, all you have to do is fill the ball with fabric softener and place it in the washer with the load. The spinning action during the rinse cycle causes the ball to release the fabric softener, so you don’t need to stop the load at any point.

If you’re handwashing, first wash the clothes with water and detergent. After rinsing the detergent away, add fresh water and a small amount of softener before a final rinse. 

Again, it’s important to read the product labels and follow the instructions on the packaging to avoid mishaps.

Laundry Detergent and Fabric Softener Combos

If you want your clothes clean and soft but don’t want to buy separate products, there are several laundry detergents that include fabric softener in their formulas.

Some examples include Tide Plus Downy and Arm & Hammer Plus Softener.

You simply pour these formulas in the detergent compartment or directly into the washer’s drum (depending on the washing machine), and they do the rest.

Just because these combo formulas exist doesn’t mean you should try to create your own.

Tide, Arm & Hammer, and other companies have specially designed these products so that the cleaning ingredients do their job first and the strengthening and softening ingredients kick in after.

Related: Check out my comparison of Tide vs. Arm & Hammer.

By simply combining laundry detergent and softener on your own, the softener will rinse out with the detergent during the first rinse cycle, and you won’t reap the benefit from the softener.

Final Thoughts

While fabric softener and laundry detergent are often packaged similarly and sold together, they serve different functions.

Detergent is meant to thoroughly clean fabrics by removing dirt, oils, buildup, and stains, while fabric softener is formulated to reinforce and protect the fabric during washing.

If you run out of detergent and are seeking an alternative product to use in its place, fabric softener, unfortunately, won’t do the job.

You’re better off handwashing your garments, or you can look up effective alternatives like baking soda or borax.

Accidentally using fabric softener in place of laundry detergent won’t damage your clothes or your washing machine, but it also won’t get your fabrics very clean. If this happens, simply redo the load of laundry using the appropriate products.

Andrew Palermo Founder of Prudent Reviews

Andrew Palermo - About the Author

Andrew is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Prudent Reviews. He began his career in marketing, managing campaigns for dozens of Fortune 500 brands. In 2018, Andrew founded Prudent Reviews and has since reviewed 600+ products. When he’s not testing the latest cookware, kitchen knives, and appliances, he’s spending time with his family, cooking, and doing house projects. Connect with Andrew via emailLinkedIn, or the Prudent Reviews YouTube channel.

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