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How Do Washing Detergents Work?

Washing detergent is something we all use regularly to keep clothes clean, soft, and fragrant. It comes in a variety of forms, including powders, liquids, and single use liquid tabs – but how does it work?  

What’s Inside Your Detergent?

Unlike traditional soap, modern laundry detergents are packed with clever ingredients, including surfactant compounds, naturally-occurring enzymes, and other synthetic elements. Dyes, fragrances, and fillers now give you better results than ever before. Let’s put aside the mumbo-jumbo and look at each of these elements in turn!


The word surfactant is a combination of the words ‘surface-active agent’, otherwise known as the heroic ingredient in leading liquid detergents. By reducing the surface tension of water, surfactants help the detergent to penetrate dirt, allowing the water to wash it away. The surfactant molecules in detergents have a water-loving (hydrophilic) head and a water-hating (hydrophobic) tail.

During a wash cycle, the water-loving head attaches itself to the water in the stains while its water-hating tail clings onto the grease, allowing the detergent to smother the stain. The dirt can then be washed away by the water inside the machine with minimum effort, and is then suspended in the water, kept away from your precious garments.


Although the exact formula varies between brands, all detergents contain enzymes. Enzymes are fast acting, powerful proteins, each of which targets certain types of molecules, leaving clothes wonderfully fresh. The most common enzymes include the following:


Some manufacturers also add bleach to their detergent formulas. Bleach contains peroxide which makes clothes brighter, simultaneously ensuring that your whites don’t lose their sparkle. Fluorescent agents are also used to help protect whites from yellowing, while clever dyes step colour seepage from darker garments.  

Detergent Types

There are many different detergent powder formulas on the market, from eco-friendly products to those specially designed for use solely on delicates, or tweaked for heavy garments.

Eco friendly

There are a number of ways in which detergents can be eco-friendly, for better for the planet. Buying a concentrated formula like Surf excel means you can cut down on the amount of packaging you are purchasing over time; this in turn means you can reduce your waste output!


Formulated with low water, high-efficiency washing machines in mind, concentrated detergents are more concentrated than your regular product while delivering equally impressive results.

Dark formula

Effective on heavy fabrics such as denim and bold garments, dark formula detergents are designed specifically to prevent colour seepage, helping to keep them vivid and bright. Others, Like Surf excel, are designed to work with all clothes, and over all-round protection. With both types, the best way to avoid colour deterioration is to ensure that similar colours are washed together!


Always read the care label for specific washing instructions before switching to a new washing powder.