Soap vs. Detergent: What’s the Difference?

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Soap vs. Detergent

Soap and detergent are both extremely common household cleaning products, but what is the difference between the two? If you’re looking to eliminate synthetic and potentially toxic cleaning agents from within your home, getting familiar with the ingredients list on your soaps and detergents is a vital step.

While you may be led to believe that soaps and detergents are very similar or even interchangeable, the two are actually very different. We will take some time to look at soap vs. detergent to learn more.

Specifically, we are going to talk you through the basic composition of each of these products and how they differ from one another to establish which one is the best option when it comes to cleaning yourself and your home without the use of any harsh and harmful chemical ingredients.

Let’s start by looking at the basics…

Soap vs. Detergent

What is Soap?

Traditionally, soap is made from a mixture of natural fats or oils and an alkali ingredient derived from salt. Natural soap can be made at home using basic ingredients such as glycerin and essential oils. Soap loosens bacteria and viruses on the skin so that these can be removed and washed away easily. Soap molecules attract both water and oil so they’re very effective at removing any dirt.

Soap can be used to clean the body, face and hair as well as for household cleaning purposes such as dishwashing, hard surface cleaning, and the washing of fabrics.

Soap, in the traditional sense, is made using entirely naturally derived ingredients. However, a lot of the products you see labeled as ‘soap’ in the drugstore or pharmacy are likely to also include synthetic fragrances, dyes, preservatives, and other chemicals, so it is always important to check the ingredients list thoroughly to ensure you are getting pure soap without any added chemicals. If the soap does not contain Lye or any natural fats, it is not considered a traditional soap mixture and is likely to contain other synthetic ingredients.

Related: Best Natural Hand Soap without Harmful Chemicals

What is Detergent?

Detergents are typically made by combining chemical compounds. They can be used in liquid or powder form and are man-made using synthetic ingredients. Detergents work in the same way as soaps, in that they contain long surfactant molecules with two different ends: one end attracts water while the other attracts oils, meaning that dirt and stains cling to the surfactants for easy removal.

Detergents are most commonly used to clean laundry, carpets, dishes, and other household cleaning purposes. Their ingredients will vary depending on the specific product and its intended use, but typically detergents will contain ingredients such as ammonium, soluble salts or alkalies, silicones, preservatives, sulfates, and catalytic enzymes.

So, What Are the Key Differences Between the Two?

When looking at soap vs. detergent the most obvious difference between them is their ingredients. Soaps use all-natural ingredients which include, as a base, fats or oils, and a salt-derived alkali ingredient. They might also contain some natural fragrances such as essential oils or plant extracts.

ImageProductOur RatingPrice
Most Versatile
Dr. Bronner’s - Pure-Castile Liquid Soap (Peppermint)
Dr. Bronner’s - Pure-Castile Liquid Soap (Peppermint)
  • Concentrated, plant-based, fully biodegradable & use all-natural, vegan ingredients 
  • Our products & ingredients are cruelty-free, over 70% of ingredients are certified fair trade, over 90% are organic
  • No synthetic preservatives, thickeners, or foaming agents

 

9.9
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Eco Me Dish SoapEco Me Dish Soap
  • Fragrance-free dish soap quickly cuts through dirt, grease, and grime leaving dishes sparkling clean without a filmy residue
  • Packed with natural plant extracts and all-natural plant-derived ingredients
  • Chemical-free containing all-natural antibacterial properties so that you don't have to sacrifice sanitation for the environment and greywater and septic safe to protect aquatic life
9.4
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Better Life Sulfate Free Dish Soap (Pomegranate)Better Life Sulfate Free Dish Soap (Pomegranate)
  • Plant-based cleaning ingredients like corn and coconut and scented with pomegranate and grapefruit extracts
  • Natural, hypoallergenic that cuts through grease without sulfates
  • Cruelty-Free: BETTER LIFE is a Leaping Bunny Certified company that never tests on animals.
9.3
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Detergents, on the other hand, are made using a combination of chemical compounds. They commonly include silicones, sulfates, and preservatives.

Detergents are generally used for household cleaning purposes, most commonly laundry and dish cleaning, while soaps are more widely used for personal care as body, face, or hand washes. This is due to the fact that soaps are much more gentle and safe to use on the skin as a result of their natural ingredients.

Related: The Best Chemical-Free Laundry Detergents

Soap vs. Detergent: Which is The Best Cleaning Agent?

Typically, detergents are more effective when it comes to removing stubborn dirt or stains from most fabrics or hard surfaces. Their chemical structure means that they can cut through dirt easily and the enzymes which are commonly found in detergents are excellent at lifting and removing tough stains.

Soaps are generally much gentler than detergents, given that they contain all-natural ingredients and no synthetic chemicals. Soaps don’t contain any bleach or brightening agents which means they are not typically as effective when it comes to stain removal. This is why soaps are more commonly used for cleaning the body, face, and hands, rather than for household cleaning purposes.

Unsurprisingly, however, soap is much more eco-friendly and safe to use than detergents. The chemical-rich ingredients list found in most detergents means that they can be super harsh and in some cases, toxic.  Prolonged exposure to synthetic ingredients such as sulfates and silicones can cause skin irritation, breathing difficulties, and lung problems. These chemicals are also super harmful to waterways and the environment, causing acidification of water and soil and causing endless damage to ecosystems and plant life.

So, while these chemicals may be effective when it comes to household cleaning, their ability to remove dirt and stains is far outweighed by their negative health and environmental impacts. Natural soaps may not provide the same bleaching and brightening effects as synthetic detergents, but they do remove dirt, grease, and many viruses and bacteria, all without having any negative health implications or environmental effects.

All in all, we strongly believe that soap is a much safer and more suitable cleaning agent when it comes to the cleaning of yourself, your loved ones, and your home. To summarize why we have collated a list of the pros and cons of using both soaps and detergents…

Dr. Bronner's - Pure-Castile Liquid Soap (4 Ounce Variety Pack) Peppermint, Lavender, Tea Tree, Eucalyptus, Almond - Made with Organic Oils, 18-in-1 Uses: Face, Body, Hair, Laundry, Pets and DishesDr. Bronner’s – Pure-Castile Liquid Soap

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Pros and Cons of Using Soap

Listed below are the pros and cons of using soap as a cleaning agent within your home.

Pros

1. Environmentally Friendly

Natural soaps are completely biodegradable meaning they won’t contribute to landfill waste and they have no negative impacts on waterways or the environment. They are extremely eco-friendly and have been used safely for many thousands of years for cleansing purposes.

2. Non-Toxic and Hypoallergenic

Their natural ingredients lists also mean that soaps are non-toxic and hypoallergenic. This makes them suitable for use around pets and children and means that even sensitive skin won’t be left feeling dry, irritated, or itchy after use. This is why soaps are so great when it comes to personal care purposes. They won’t strip the skin of any naturally protective oils and instead restore moisture while also gently cleansing the skin.

3. Can be Hand-Made

Finally, it is super easy to create your own all-natural soaps at home. This way, you are able to customize the scents using your favorite essential oil blends and you can be absolutely certain that the soap you are using on your skin is completely natural, safe, and eco-friendly. All you need are some basic ingredients including oil, water, and lye. Soaps can be made in large quantities making this a super affordable and eco-friendly option.

Plant Therapy Essentials Gift Set - Lavender, Peppermint, Eucalyptus, Lemon, Rosemary, Cinnamon 100% Pure, Undiluted, Natural Aromatherapy, Therapeutic Grade 10 mL (1/3 oz)Plant Therapy Essentials Gift Set – Lavender, Peppermint, Eucalyptus, Lemon, Rosemary, Cinnamon

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Cons

1. No Brightening or Bleaching Power for Stain Removal

In terms of cons, natural soaps do not provide the same stain removal power that many synthetic detergents do. This is because no harmful chemicals such as bleach are found in natural soaps. These ingredients may be effective when it comes to lifting stubborn stains, but their negative environmental and health implications far outweigh any additional cleaning power they might offer.

Pros and Cons of Using Detergent

Now, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of detergents when used as cleaning agents.

Pros

1. Can be More Affordable than Natural Soaps

Because they are made using cheaper, synthetic alternatives to the naturally derived ingredients found in soaps, detergents are often the cheaper option in most stores.

This is not always the case, however. As we noted earlier, it is possible to make your own DIY soaps and this can be done using extremely affordable, long-lasting ingredients, making it an extremely cost-effective option.

Cons

1. Often Contain Toxic Ingredients

The ingredients most commonly found in detergents are man-made, synthetic, and can be extremely toxic if ingested or inhaled. Silicones, sulfates and synthetic dyes, and preservatives, in particular, are super harsh ingredients that are not suitable for use on the skin and are typically made using unsustainable methods.

2. Can Have Detrimental Health Implications

The potential health implications of these chemical ingredients include skin irritation, respiratory difficulties, lung and liver problems, disrupted hormonal activity, and irritation of the eyes and mouth. These effects can be particularly detrimental to those with asthma or other respiratory problems, skin conditions such as eczema or dermatitis, and for children or anyone considered to be immuno-compromised. 

3. Extensive Environmental Impacts

As well as the plethora of health implications, the synthetic ingredients used in many detergents are also incredibly harmful to the environment. They can easily pollute waterways and the air and are key contributors to ecosystem damage and the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. They cause extensive damage to plant and aquatic life and can also cause corrosive damage to any pipework within the home with prolonged use.

ImageProductOur RatingPrice
Best Overall
Dr. Bronner’s - Organic Tea Tree Sugar Soap
Dr. Bronner’s - Organic Tea Tree Sugar Soap
  • Tea tree hand soap formulated with Fair Trade and USDA organic shikakai powder, sugar, oils
  • Made with essential oils and plant-based ingredients, no detergents or synthetic preservatives
  • Leaves skin smooth, hydrated, and moisturized
9.7
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Best Moisturizing
Beessential All Natural Foaming Hand Soap
Beessential All Natural Foaming Hand Soap
  • 2 pack sweet orange foaming hand soap
  • Made with natural oils, essential oils, aloe, and honey to be moisturizing and soothing
  • Free from alcohol, gluten, SLS, parabens, PEG, and GMO
  • Made in the USA, no testing on animals
9.6
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Best Value
Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Liquid Hand Soap
Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Liquid Hand Soap
  • 3 pack sweet, tart rhubarb scent
  • Formulated with olive oil, aloe vera, and essential oils to be moisturizing on hands, no artificial colors, parabens, or phthalates
  • Biodegradable, cruelty-free, and no animal testing
9.5
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Final Thoughts on Soap vs. Detergent: What’s the Difference?

All in all, when it comes to the products that you use within your home and around your loved ones, it is super important that you avoid any harsh chemical ingredients which may cause a plethora of health and environmental issues.

When it comes to looking at soap vs. detergent, soap is much safer, gentler, and more eco-friendly, making it by far the superior choice of cleaning agent. While detergents might offer high-strength cleaning power, the harsh chemical ingredients mean that the cons of using these synthetic products far outweigh the pros.

The natural ingredients found in traditional soaps make them a great all-around product that is suitable for cleaning your body, hands, face, and your home.

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