Cold Water Detergent vs. Regular Detergent

By now, most people know that washing clothes in cold water saves energy costs, and helps to keep colors from fading. Many people still are reluctant to wash 100% of their laundry solely in cold water for reasons varying from old habits, to concerns about unsatisfactory results. A few years back, detergent companies started marketing laundry detergent “specifically designed” for use in cold water. Does it make a difference?

First, a reminder that most of the energy used on a load of laundry comes from heating the water. Second, (a fact that may be new to you) there are many areas in the world outside the U.S. where washing machines only use cold water. Third, hot or warm water is the key ingredient in making some detergents work well.

So how do companies stay with the times, help the penny-pinching consumer and promote green cleaning products? That’s right, they come up with a “reformulated detergent” containing supposedly different enzymes and surfactants designed to work better in cold water.

In an attempt to find out the difference between cold water detergents and regular detergents, I went to the website of a leading producer, Tide. There you can access every variety of detergent they sell, along with a list of the ingredients, FAQs, and assorted information for each. In addition to the general list of ingredients for each product, they also offer a list of the ingredients in order of prominence, meaning whatever it contains the most is listed first and continues downward from that point.

What was the most prominent ingredient? No surprise, it was water, followed by a few surfactants, and processing aids to help keep the ingredients mixed together (avoids the clumping that those of us who make our own detergent are familiar with), borax, citric acid and assorted stain fighting chemicals.

When comparing the ingredients of the regular detergent and the cold-water detergent, I was surprised to find that they were basically the same, whether the list was by prominence or not. My original thinking was that there might be a greater quantity of a particular ingredient in the cold-water formula, than the regular formula, however there was nothing on the web site’s list of ingredients to support that theory. So unless there is a trade secret not mentioned, they are one in the same, just a different label. If anyone has something in writing to substantiate anything different, I would love to see it.

Personally, I have found that you can wash everything in cold water successfully, as long as you follow a few basic rules: Only use liquid detergent, as most powders need warm water to completely dissolve and clean successfully. Use the proper amount of detergent – too little and your wash load will not come clean, and too much will leave a soapy residue behind on your wash. Finally, do not overload the washer – leave room for items to move around in the water.