Can Hand Soap Be Used to Wash Clothes?

Picture this. You’re travelling. No laundry detergent available. You put on your favorite shirt in the morning (you know, the one that you were planning to use the day after tomorrow again). Surprise! It’s dirty at the end of day. Maybe it was a sauce stain, some dust, grease stains. Whatever. Something happened and now your shirt is dirty. Now I know what you’re thinking, how about I grab that bottle of hand soap and squirt some on the shirt. That will help, right? The ingredients in hand soap are...similar...right? Since the ingredients are similar, both should work equally well, right? Well, not quite. The ingredients in hand soap are closer to dish soap, shampoo, and (maybe) all purpose cleaner. But the ingredients in laundry detergent are completely different!

Just by squirting a few pumps of hand soap into your clothes and running them under the water you might you’re cleaning them, but you might just be wasting that soap. Ingredients in laundry detergents are wildly different than those in hand soap. Because of the different stains that get into our clothes and how difficult they are to clean correctly, ingredients in laundry detergent are usually stronger than those in regular soap.

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The surfactants, either natural or chemical, in laundry detergents serve to separate stains, grease, and other particles from clothes and have them be washed away in water. Hand soap works...kind of like that. But to a much lesser degree.

Many different types of hand soap, including foaming hand soap, bar hand soap, hand soap for sensitive skin, and many others work perfectly to clean out your hands and to restore moisture to your skin. Some of them are even antibacterial!

However, since you come into visual contact with the soap as it is working, many companies decide to add color, fragrances, artificial thickeners, and extra sudsing. All of these can actually stain your clothes, not clean them! Laundry detergents are specially formulated to either be colorless, or to have colors that do not interact with the colors on clothes and that actually preserve them. Hand soaps? Not as much.

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So, other than create a big, soapy mess, hand soaps are not very effective to clean clothes. Your best bet to wash clothes on the go is to either pack a laundry pod or laundry tablet in your suitcase (just in case), or to go to the closest grocery store and buy a travel pack of laundry detergent.

However, if the stain is very small, mild, or gentle. Then this is what you must do:

  1. Dampen the clothing item with a bit of warm water
  2. Squirt out a few pumps of hand soap
  3. Gently rub the soap on the stain in a circular motion
  4. Rinse the item with warm water until you have gotten rid of any excess soap
  5. Repeat as necessary (but not too much, you don’t want to damage the colors or fabric!)

BONUS: Remember to always look at the labels on clothes and follow any directions carefully. Some clothes require to be washed by hand (which is not the same as washed with hand soap, though!). Follow these directions to extend the life of your clothes!



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* Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation