If you look in the laundry aisle, you’ll see a multitude of bottles for detergents, softeners, boosters, and more. With so many options, it can be unclear what each product does. Specifically, people often wonder if fabric conditioner and laundry detergent are the same thing. The short answer is no – while the two products work in tandem, they serve very different functions in the wash.
Laundry Detergent Function
Let’s first examine the role of laundry detergent:
Removes dirt, oils, and stains – detergents contain surfactants that loosen and lift soils from fabric
Suspends particles – keeps dirt from re-depositing during washing with water softeners
Brightens and whitens – ingredients like oxygen bleach whiten fabrics over time
Prevents fading – special formulations protect fabric dyes
Freshens – many contain perfumes or essential oils that infuse clothes with a scent
Suitable for all machines – created for standard, HE, and front loading washers
Detergent is specially formulated to dissolve and remove soils.
Fabric Conditioner Function
Now let’s discuss the different job of fabric conditioner:
Softens fibers – conditioners coat fabric in a lubricating film for silkiness
Reduces static – special chemistry binds to fibers to reduce cling
Eases ironing – by smoothing down fiber scales to prevent friction
Protects fabricintegrity – lubrication prevents pilling and friction damage
Adds fragrance – many contain perfumes for scent
Prevents stiffness – softens fibers that would otherwise feel stiff
Simplify laundry – combines softener with detergent in one
Conditioners focus solely on softness and texture, not cleaning.
Key Differences Between Detergents and Conditioners
It is clear that detergents and fabric conditioners are designed with completely different jobs in mind:
Detergents excel at dissolving and removing soil, sweat, and oils. Conditioners do not clean or remove stains at all.
Conditioners coat fibers in a lubricating layer to prevent pilling and damage. Detergents do not offer extended fabric protection.
Detergents contain optical brighteners and bleaching agents to brighten whites. Conditioners do not alter fabric color.
Conditioners impart a soft, silky texture. Detergents do not have softening abilities.
Anti-static compounds in conditioners bind to fabric to reduce cling. Detergents do not impact static.
Both can contain perfumes and leave clothes scented. But they use different fragrances and formulations.
It is clear detergent and fabric softener serve complementary but distinct roles.
When to Use Each Product
Here are guidelines on when to use which product:
Use Detergent For:
Whites needing brightening
Odors needing removal
Buildup needing dissolved
Use Fabric Softener For:
Softening scratchy fabrics
Reducing static cling
Smoothing clothes for ironing
Adding a fresh scent
Preventing stiff fabrics
Keeping clothes flexible
Use Both When:
Washing is very dirty yet also very scratchy
Odors linger yet clothes are also stiff
Fabrics are delicate and require a gentler detergent
Here are some common questions about fabric softeners and conditioners:
What is the active ingredient in fabric softener?
The key ingredient is cationic surfactants that form a lubricating layer on fabric to reduce friction and soften fibers.
Does fabric softener help remove stains?
No, fabric softener does not have any effect on stains or cleaning ability. Use a laundry pre-treat product.
Should you use softener on baby clothes?
No, the chemicals coat the fibers and can cause irritation. Use a fragrance-free mild detergent.
Does too much softener damage clothes?
Yes, overuse can create buildup reducing absorbency and wicking ability. Use the recommended amount.
When should you add softener to a load?
Either in the softener dispenser, or at the start for front loaders without a dispenser so it distributes evenly.
What fabrics should not have softener used on them?
Avoid softener on workout wear, towels, cloth diapers and microfiber which need maximum absorbency.
Get the full scoop on picking the perfect laundry products. Bring your extra dirty and dingy laundry into Laundry Pile in Austin, TX and let our experts test fabrics and recommend customized detergent and softener pairings. We’ll pretreat tough stains then wash with powerful eco-friendly detergents. We’ll follow up with fabric softeners perfectly suited to make clothes fresh, static-free, and luxuriously soft. Say goodbye to laundry TIme struggles with personalized product selection from our laundry pros.