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Laundry detergents

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Which brand cleaned up the competition?

We tested 27 laundry powders and liquids against common stains and everyday dirt. Find out which products were up to the task.

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About our tests

Each product’s dirt-removal power was put to the test against 9 common stains. That’s as well as testing against everyday grime.

We washed specially stained swatches attached to a load of bath towels and pillow cases. The swatches we use for measuring “everyday grime” are stained with nut oil, milk and a colour pigment. Other swatches test the detergents’ enzyme action on common stains: collar and cuff grime, household dust, olive oil, tomato, make-up, grass, baby food, motor oil and blood.

We measured the recommended amount of detergent for a normally soiled load and used this to wash the test loads at a temperature of 20⁰C. Each detergent was tested on 3 loads.

The front loader was set on a “quick” cycle: the wash time was 17 minutes (rinsing and spinning time was on top of that). You can expect better soil-removal results in a front loader when using a front loader’s “normal” cycle, which has a longer wash time.

The top loader was set on a “normal” cycle: the wash time was 24 minutes (rinsing and spinning time was extra).

After washing, we measured how much dirt was removed from each swatch. We did this with a spectrophotometer (which measures how much light reflects off the swatches). It’s more accurate than the human eye.

What we found

Find out which laundry detergents topped our test by becoming a Gold or Silver member.

Ingredients

What's in your laundry detergent?

  • Phosphates have been disappearing from laundry detergents. All products in our test were low-phosphate or phosphate-free.

  • Enzymes target stains such as milk, grass and blood. Enzymes can cause irritation – so avoid them if you have sensitive skin.

  • Optical brighteners are supposed to make clothes look whiter and brighter. They help minimise greying of white fabrics but they don’t actually remove dirt. People with sensitive skin should avoid detergents with brighteners.

  • Surfactants lower the surface tension of water. This lets the water penetrate cloth more easily and so it helps remove oil and grease. Specialist front-loader detergents sometimes contain silicon compounds or special surfactants to reduce the amount of foam.

  • Builders help surfactants work better by softening hard water and raising alkalinity. They hold dirt in suspension so that it’s flushed away with the water and not re-deposited on your clothes.

  • Fillers stop powders clumping in the pack (so it makes them easy to pour).

  • Fragrance is for cosmetic reasons and to mask the smell of the ingredients.

Dealing with dirt

If you're faced with a challenging wash – like a machine load of muddy football jerseys – try these tips.

  • Increasing the dose above the recommended level will get really dirty clothes cleaner but it won’t make much difference in a normal load. There’s a point at which adding more detergent produces no improvement: you’re simply discharging more chemicals into the environment and wasting your money. With concentrated 2X detergents, an extra teaspoon adds several cents to the cost of a wash.
  • A warmer wash could help when something’s really grubby … but check the garment’s care label first. Higher temperatures soften dirt and oily stains, making it easier for the mechanical action of the washing machine to remove them. But cold washes are just fine for regular washing and they save on power bills.
  • You can improve the results of a normal wash by pre-soaking clothes. This helps loosen dirt so it can be removed more easily. Rubbing a little detergent into especially soiled spots will also help. Again, check the care label first.
  • To keep your whites really white look for a detergent which contains optical brighteners. They give fabrics a cleaner brighter appearance by coating them in a reflective solution. Wash your whites separately, because dye can transfer between clothes during the wash.

Accreditation schemes

Manufacturers can back their claims by applying for accreditation to an environmental labelling scheme.

The Environmental Choice tick

The Environmental Choice programme is endorsed by the government and run by the independent New Zealand Ecolabelling Trust. It's a member of an international eco-labelling network which sets standards for products that are environmentally preferable.

To meet the standards for a laundry detergent, a manufacturer must provide test reports and evidence that its product doesn't contain ingredients that are harmful to the environment or unnecessary for removing dirt. As well, the test evidence must show that ingredients are readily biodegradable. Environmental Choice allows phosphates but limits the amount that can be used; and it places a limit on the pH (alkalinity) of the detergent.

Products approved by Environmental Choice must also meet criteria for consumer information, packaging and cleaning performance.

The Green Tick

Green Tick is a New Zealand company that audits manufacturers' processes against independent standards for sustainability and quality management.

To achieve accreditation, the manufacturer is assessed by an independent auditor who reviews documentation, inspects the factory, and checks with government agencies that there are no health and safety or environmental issues. Some products in the manufacturer's range are also randomly selected for assessment.

Green tips

Here are some tips for reducing the impact of washing on the environment.

  • Follow the dosage instructions.
  • Use concentrates – you get more washes per pack. This reduces the amount of packaging and means they're more economical to transport and store.
  • Use the lowest acceptable wash temperature to save energy.
  • Do full wash loads. Some washing machines use the same amount of electricity and water, whether they're full or half empty.
  • Recycle containers.

Wash water on the garden

You can reduce the impact of chemicals by using only rinse water.
You can reduce the impact of chemicals by using only rinse water.

If your garden is suffering during a dry spell you might be tempted to use water from your washing machine.

But there are health issues in collecting and recycling grey water (that’s the wastewater from the sink, bath, shower and washing machine but not from the toilet or bidet). If you’re diverting the grey water to a tank you should ask your local council whether you need a consent. You won’t need one if you’re simply collecting the water in containers to water the garden straightaway.

Chemicals are also an issue. The components of wash water most likely to cause problems are:

  • Salinity/sodium (the sodium in salts harms plants and affects soil structure).
  • Phosphorus (when this gets into waterways it can cause excessive algal growth).
  • High pH (laundry detergents that have a high pH can harm plants).

You can reduce the impact of chemicals by using only rinse water.

Don't use any type of recycled grey water - wash or rinse – on acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, daphnes or camellias.

Don’t use grey water on anything you may eat raw – such as lettuces.

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