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The Difference Between a Detergent and a Soap

The Difference Between a Detergent and a Soap

Dear Annie,
I am somewhat confused about the difference between soap and detergent. Which is best for the environment? My health? –Janice, CT

Answer: Excellent question. Soaps and detergents are not the same thing, although both are surfactants, or surface active agents, which basically means a washing compound that mixes with grease and water.

Soaps are made of materials found in nature. Detergents are synthetic (although some of the ingredients are natural); they were developed during World War II when oils to make soap were scarce. There is little doubt that soap is better for your health and the environment than detergents. Some detergents are very toxic to fish and wildlife.

Nonetheless, a big drawback of washing with soap is that the minerals in water react with those in soap, leaving an insoluble film. This can turn clothes grayish, and the film can leave a residue (such as is found on shower stalls, for example). Detergents react less to minerals in water and for all practical purposes are the product of choice for laundry, unless you have very soft water. Those of you with hard water—which has a high mineral content—already know about this, I am sure.

If you choose to wash your clothes with a detergent—or the dishes, or some of my recipes asking for a biodegradable soap or detergent—you can ensure the least possible damage to the environment by selecting the most biodegradable products. Health food stores have a number of brands of detergent that are made with renewable materials instead of petroleum-based ingredients, and with natural essential oil fragrance and no dyes. They also sell liquid vegetable-oil soaps called castile soap.

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Annie B. Bond

Annie is a renowned expert in non-toxic and green living. She was named one of the top 20 environmental leaders by Body and Soul Magazine and "the foremost expert on green living." - Body & Soul Magazine, 2009. Learn Annie's latest eco-friendly news on, a website dedicated to healthy and green living.


+ add your own
1:40AM PST on Mar 5, 2013

Thank you for posting.

11:00AM PST on Feb 18, 2013


12:16AM PDT on Aug 24, 2012

Thanks for sharing this info.

12:11PM PDT on May 15, 2012

Thanks for the info.

3:40AM PDT on May 2, 2012

good to remember

5:17AM PST on Mar 1, 2012

Thanks for the post

3:56AM PST on Mar 1, 2012

Thanks for the article.

9:30PM PST on Feb 29, 2012

good info, thank you!

5:29AM PST on Feb 2, 2012


6:18AM PDT on Oct 31, 2011


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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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