What's the Difference Between Soap and Detergent?

Here at Cleancult, we’re all for the homemade recipes and tutorials on how to make your own cleaners. I mean, we’ve written about homemade detergent, homemade hand soap and even homemade dishwasher soap! However, what stops you from washing your hands with laundry detergent pods or washing your clothes with regular ol’ Dial soap? Well, today we explain the important difference between soap and detergent and why they’re used for different purposes.

Some people try to simplify the differences by saying: soap is natural, but detergent is not. However, as we know that soap doesn’t just grow on trees and that we can’t create detergent from thin air, it’s clear that it’s actually more complicated than that.

Bar of Soap


In short, soap is created by mixing fats and oils with a base. Mainstream, leading-brand soap also contains added chemicals both for color and fragrance and to earn that sweet “antibacterial” label. However, the main ingredients of a soap are fats and oils. You can make homemade hand soap from a clear glycerin base and adding just essential oils and some herbs and spices.

Since soap is natural, it is biodegradable and less harmful to the environment than regular, mainstream detergents. However, the minerals in water react with soap and can turn clothes grey and leave a film or residue.


Mainstream and regular detergents are usually made by combining chemical compounds in a mixer, then heating the mixture up and later drying it and converting it into the powdered detergent that many have used for many years. These chemical compounds can vary widely to include from Dioxide, Phosphates and Surfactants (some of what mainstream detergent manufacturers usually use) to Salt and Citric Acid (these two are some of what we use).  

Liquid detergents usually have a large quantity of water added to their formula after they have been mixed, thus their liquid form.

All-Purpose Cleaner Bottles

Soap vs. Detergent

As mentioned before, there is a chemical difference between the formulas of soap and the formulas of detergents. The advantage of (either non-toxic or conventional, mainstream) laundry detergents over soap is that the former are specifically formulated to work in washing machine environments, some even are formulated to work in special HE Washing Machine.

Many soaps, however, by definition, are designed to clean skin, hands or face areas and are not as strong as detergents. And, as previously stated, the use of soaps to wash clothes may leave buildup in both garments and washers.

In other words, detergents are, because of their chemical structure, stronger than soaps when getting rid of greasy or oily buildup on surfaces or clothes. Almost all of the cleaners used when cleaning your house are detergents. In a common household, you may find dishwasher detergents, laundry detergents, floor cleaners, wood cleaners, glass cleaners, multi-purpose cleaners, and others. All of these are detergents. However, what you use to wash your hands, face, hair or your pets’ fur are all soaps!

Once again we stress the importance of looking at and reading labels on all of your cleaning and beauty products. It’s not only important to know which ingredients are on your cleaner or washer, but it’s imperative to know the intended purpose of each cleaner.

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