Fabric softener vs detergent - Detergent and fabric softener with stack of folded towels on white table in bathroom

Fabric softener vs detergent: What’s the best for laundry?

Comparing fabric softener and detergent based on cleaning power, fabric softness, fragrance, and more.

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Key Facts

  • A fabric softener is a solution designed to soften and freshen fabrics during the laundry process. 
  • A detergent is a cleaning agent that removes dirt, stains, and odours from clothes and textiles.

The invention of fabric softeners took the world by storm. People were no longer satisfied with just having clean clothes — they wanted their clothes to be softer, smell better, and feel more comfortable on the skin.

However, this also led to a lot of confusion surrounding fabric softener vs detergent. Many people don't know the difference between the two, and some even wonder if they can be used interchangeably.

If you're one of these people, don't worry! This guide will talk about each and help you understand which one is best for your laundry needs.

What is a fabric softener? 

Fabric softener vs detergent - Putting fabric softener to washing machine

When you pull a shirt from the dryer, and it feels like wearing a cloud, that’s your fabric softener or fabric conditioner (as some people call it) working its magic. This fancy laundry add-on is a game-changer for keeping your clothes soft, cosy, and smelling fresh.

A fabric conditioner and softener’s goal is to condition your clothes and make them feel as good as they look. They coat the fibres of your clothes to reduce friction during the wash and rinse cycle. This results in softer clothes, which means your threads will less likely to stretch, fade, or get those pesky static shocks. In simpler terms, using a fabric softener gives your clothes and linens that extra bit of TLC.

What is a detergent? 

Fabric softener vs detergent - Hands of a person that fills detergent in the washing machine

Detergents are the ones in charge of getting rid of the dirt and stains on clothes. Bio and non-bio laundry detergent each has its own unique way of tackling the grime depending on its ingredients and chemical composition. Bio detergents use enzymes to break down proteins, fats, and starches. On the other hand, non-bio detergents are kinder to sensitive skin as they opt for a more gentle approach to cleaning.

There are also powder vs liquid detergents. Powder detergents are great for heavy-duty cleaning, while liquid detergents are better for pre-treating stains and getting into tight spots like collars and cuffs.

No matter what you’re dealing with, there’s a detergent out there ready to rescue your clothes and make them look as good as new. You just need to throw your laundry into the machine with a good detergent, and you’re all set.

Fabric conditioner vs detergent: What are their key differences?

When it comes down to laundry day or stocking up your stylish new laundry area, taking your pick between a detergent and a fabric conditioner will surely stop you in your tracks. But you don’t have to stay wondering for long. This guide will break down their differences and when to use which. 

In terms of cleaning power

Fabric softener vs detergent - A person washing dirty clothes in the washer to show the cleaning power of a detergent

Fabric conditioner and detergent serve distinctly different purposes in the laundry process. While a detergent’s job is to remove dirt and stains from your clothes, fabric conditioner or softener doesn’t contribute to the cleaning. Instead, it softens fabrics and reduces static, so your clothes feel more comfortable against your skin.

Now, you might wonder, does fabric softener clean clothes? The answer’s a straightforward no. It’s the detergents that tackle the tough spots and grime, whether you’re using top-load or front-load washers. These machines differ in their mechanism, but the underlying fact remains the same – detergent cleans and fabric softener softens. 

Recommendation: Only detergents can clean clothes, so use them for every wash load. 

In terms of fabric softness

Fabric softener vs detergent - A close up of a woman feeling the fabric softness of a white blanket

When it comes to making your clothes feel softer, the fabric softener stands out. As a cloth conditioner, it enhances the fabric feel and makes each garment more comfortable. You’ll find that after using them, your clothes not only smell fresh but also have that luxurious, soft touch.

However, it’s crucial to know that not all laundry softeners are created equal. Some might leave a residue that affects fabric breathability, especially in sportswear and moisture-wicking fabrics. That’s why exploring other choices is highly beneficial. There are products specifically designed to maintain softness without compromising the fabric’s functionality.

Detergents, on the other hand, don’t have any effect on fabric softness. They’re solely responsible for eliminating dirt, grease, and other stains. There are some variants that might claim to have softening properties, but they’re not as effective as fabric softeners. 

Recommendation: Invest in a good quality fabric softener to keep your clothes soft and comfy.

In terms of fragrance

Fabric softener vs detergent - Woman smelling fragrant clean clothes washed from softener and washing machine.

Fragrance plays a major role in our laundry routine. Surely, many of us prefer clothes that smell as clean as they look. 

Luckily, detergents often come packed with a variety of scents, from fresh linen to tropical breezes. The intensity and longevity of the fragrance can vary greatly between products, but detergents only offer a subtle scent that fades quickly.

Meanwhile, certain fabric softeners are formulated to keep your garments smelling fresher for longer. It’s worth experimenting with different brands and types to find the perfect match for your nose and wardrobe. 

Recommendation: Choose a quality fabric softener over regular detergent for long-lasting fragrance.

In terms of colour protection

Fabric softener vs detergent - Stacked clean clothes and detergents on washing machine

Nobody wants their favourite red sweater to turn pink or their crisp white shirts to become dull. That’s why it’s important to know that detergents are great at removing dirt, but they don’t specifically protect colours.

Some washing laundry liquid formulas boast colour-protecting agents aimed at keeping your vibrant hues as dazzling as the day you bought them. However, it’s the fabric softener that indeed prevent colours from fading. They contain ingredients that coat the fibres and protect them from harsh chemicals in the washing machine. 

Recommendation: Opt for a fabric softener or washing softener that promises colour protection.

In terms of fabric longevity

Fabric softener vs detergent - A woman unloading laundry from white washing machine

It’s a long-standing belief that using laundry detergent for washing machines affects the quality and longevity of your clothes. This is partly true since harsh chemicals in some detergents can damage delicate fabrics like silk or wool. But, overall, the main factor that affects fabric wear and tear is the washing machine itself.

However, if you’re still worried, know that fabric softeners can extend fabric life. They make clothes softer and prevent them from wearing down too quickly by reducing friction during the wash cycle. They also guard against the rough and tumble of washing. 

Recommendation: Go with a fabric softener to keep your clothes looking and feeling their best for longer.

In terms of cost

Fabric softener vs detergent - Detergents and fabric conditioners on shelf in supermarket

In your grocery runs, you’ll find that detergents generally come with a higher price tag. That’s because they’re tasked with the heavier job of removing dirt and stains from your clothes. On the flip side, fabric softeners, while beneficial for preserving fabric quality and colour vibrancy, are often seen as an optional extra.

The price range for liquid fabric conditioners spans from $1.93 for a basic 250-mL sachet to $44.95 for premium 4-litre packs. Notably, eco-friendly options present a mid-price range that appeals to the environmentally conscious. Bulk buying is also a choice for those looking to reduce the per-litre or per-wash cost significantly.

In contrast, the price range for liquid laundry detergents is between $9.12 and $39.99 depending on the volume. Specialty detergents that are made for people with sensitive skin or those that have enhanced stain removal are priced around $125.44.

Recommendation: Detergents can be a bit pricier but have a more significant impact on the cleanliness of your clothes. 

Streamline your laundry routine with Airtasker

Finding the perfect balance between detergents and fabric softeners can be a chore in itself. But, here's a little secret — the Airtasker platform can make it all a breeze by connecting you with the nearest local cleaners who can help with your laundry. 

Whether you're swamped with work, trying to juggle family life, or simply want to take a break from the laundry room, posting your task on the site offers a solution that will simplify your laundry routine.

With pros ready to handle everything from cleaning to a bout of laundry, why not take the hassle out of your laundry routine? Post a task today and connect with skilled Taskers who can turn your laundry pile into a worry of the past. Remember, life's too short to spend it in the laundry room.

Fabric softener vs detergent

Fabric Softener
Cleaning Power
Doesn’t clean but softens fabric
Removes dirt, stains, and odours
Fabric Softness
Makes fabrics soft and cosy
No effect on softness
Long-lasting scent

Subtle, quick-fading scent

Colour Protection
Protects colours during wash
Doesn’t protect colours
Fabric Longevity
Extends fabric life by reducing friction
Strong variants may damage delicate fabrics
Generally less expensive
More expensive, varies by type

FAQs on fabric softener and detergent

If you use fabric softener instead of detergent, then you’d most likely end up with clothes that are still dirty despite smelling nice. This is because fabric conditioners are meant to improve softness and fragrance of clothes after washing, but not really clean them. There might still be visible stains and dirt on the fabric as well.

The choice between bio and non-bio laundry detergent depends on personal preferences and skin sensitivities. Bio detergents contain enzymes that are effective at removing stains at lower temperatures but may irritate sensitive skin.

There’s no difference between fabric softener and fabric conditioner. These terms are used interchangeably to describe the same product, which is used to make clothes feel softer and fresher after washing.

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