Soaps: What are the Differences?

picture of a sink

Is there really a difference between dishwasher detergent, laundry detergent, dish soap, hand soap and shampoos? Actually, yes! There are some major differences between these soaps, which means they are NOT interchangeable.

Most soaps have the same, or a very similar, acting ingredient called sodium lauryl sulfate.  This ingredient is the primary cleaning agent that works to get rid of oils and dirt. This does most of the heavy work. The other ingredients do other things, though most are needed. For example, Cocamide DEA makes soap foam, but doesn’t actually help clean (NPR). So if the core of all soaps are the same, they should be interchangeable, right? Actually not.

The difference between all soaps is the environment in which they are meant to be used. Things like temperature and products being cleaned are major factors in the development of soaps. These factors can determine the pH and amount of bleach put into each type of soap. Dishwasher detergents have high pH levels and lots of bleach to clean via brute force. Laundry detergents use small amounts of bleach to help clean without damaging the clothes. Hand soaps and shampoos have no bleach and have almost neutral pH levels so they won’t damage your skin or hair (University of Wisconsin – Madison).

Knowing the differences won’t only save your appliances and skin, but it can help you decide what soaps to use when. Here are some easy do’s and don’ts for soap uses.


Dishwasher Detergent:

  • Put in the dishwasher
  • Use to remove tough stains on white clothes
  • Use for colored clothes
  • Use on easily bleached materials
  • Use on your skin


Laundry Detergent:

  • Clean your clothes with it
  • Use it as a carpet cleaner
  • Clean your couch or other furniture
  • Use it to remove stains
  • Clean shoes
  • Put it in the dishwasher (I know of someone who did this, bad idea)
  • Use as a bathroom cleaner
  • Use as a body or hair cleaner


Dish Soap:

  • Clean your dishes with it
  • Use to clean counters, cupboards, appliances and floor
  • Use to remove oil-based paints from skin or clothes
  • Use to help remove tough stains
  • Wash your hands after touching raw meat or other germy things
  • Put in the dishwasher
  • Put in the washing machine
  • Use to wash your hair (unless you’ve got some super good conditioner)


Hand Soap:

  • Clean your hands, body or hair (if needed)
  • Use to remove easy stains from fabric
  • Quickly clean dishes you’re not trying to sanitize
  • Put in dishwasher
  • Put in washing machine
  • Use to clean floors, bathroom or anywhere else that should be cleaned with tougher soaps



  • Wash your hair
  • Wash your body
  • Use as replacement hand soap if needed
  • Do anything that you wouldn’t do for hand soaps.


Did anything surprise you? Have you accidentally used a soap the wrong way – like putting laundry detergent in the dishwasher? Comment below with your thoughts and stories. If I missed anything or if you want to learn more, comment below to inspire my next post!

5 thoughts on “Soaps: What are the Differences?

  1. Once when I was a teenager I was on a 50 mile wilderness backpacking trip, and wanted to wash at least one of my shirts before re-entering civilization, because all my shirts smelled REALLY BAD by the end of my trip. But of course no one brings laundry detergent on a wilderness backpacking trip. I tried scrubbing the shirt with dish soap, then hanging it on a rope in a fast-running stream all night long. Guess what? The next morning the shirt still smelled really bad. You really do need the right kind of soap for the right job.


  2. Great story, David! I know we’ve all misused soap at least once before and most of the time it doesn’t work our for us. You’d think soaps were interchangeable, but they aren’t.


  3. I used dish soap instead of dishwasher detergent in the dishwasher once; it resulted in a big foamy mess all over the kitchen floor 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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